Breast Cancer Team

Risk Factors and Warning Signs

Risk Factors

Who Is at High Risk for Breast Cancer?
It should be emphasized that monthly breast self-examination, breast examination by a physician, and mammography at appropriate intervals as recommended by the American Cancer Society, are essential procedures for all women to follow. It is not to be interpreted as limited to only those women who are considered at high risk for breast cancer. As a matter of fact, an estimated 70 to 75 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors other than their age and being female.

 It is known, however, that certain women are more likely than others to develop breast cancer and these women should undergo professional breast cancer check-ups more frequently than the recommended average.

Breast Cancer Risk Factors:

  • Gender (Female)
  • Age
  • Western European Origin
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Previous cancer in one breast
  • Previous biopsy result "atypical hyperplasia"
  • Nulliparity (Having borne no children)
  • Late first full-term pregnancy
  • Early menarche (less than 12 years old)
  • Late menopause ( > age 55)
  • Exposure to ionizing irradiation
  • High fat diet and obesity
  • Estrogen use
  • Urban environment
  • Alcohol intake

No one factor or combination of factors have been found that can be used to predict the occurrence of breast cancer in any individual; no single factor is enough to base a decision. All factors must be considered in estimating the chance that a woman may develop breast cancer.

Studies have long shown that carrying a pregnancy to full term lowers a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Whether miscarriage or induced abortion increased a woman's risk of developing breast cancer is not as clear cut. A new large study which appeared in the January 1996 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found the risk slight; some researchers felt this small increase might be due to participants in the study withholding information. Since we can’t control most of the personal risk factors for breast cancer, the way to reduce the current mortality rate is through early detection.

Warning Signs

Changes in either breast, such as:

  • Lumps
  • Thickening
  • Swelling
  • Dimpling
  • Skin irritation
  • Distortion
  • Retraction
  • Scaliness
  • Pain or tenderness of the nipple that does not go away
  • Sunken or pulled-in nipple
  • Any fluid from either nipple

Mortality rates from breast cancer are falling in Caucasian women, but not in African-American women. Although Caucasian women are more likely to get breast cancer than African-American women, several studies seem to indicate that the breast cancer in African-American women appears more deadly.

One study conducted at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, found that in 6,000 tumors examined, the tumors in the African-American women had cells that divided more actively, spreading cancer more quickly, than those of Caucasian women.

Similar findings were reported in studies conducted at the Louisiana Medical Center involving almost 1,000 tumors and at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where over 700 tumors were studied.