Bright Pink believes that taking control of your breast and ovarian health starts with understanding your risks for breast and ovarian cancer. We can’t exactly say what causes breast and ovarian cancer, but we can identify things that put us at higher risk of developing cancer. Risk factors come from a lot of different places in your life, including who you are as a woman and what’s happened to you in the past.
While there are many reasons to celebrate being women, we should be aware that some of our identifying characteristics make us more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer.
The risk factors that are just a part of us are:
Being a woman is the greatest risk factor for developing breast and ovarian cancer. While men can develop breast cancer, it is much more common in women, because the cells in our breasts are constantly exposed to estrogen and progesterone, the female hormones that promote growth.
Your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer increases as you get older. About two-thirds of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 55.
Breast and ovarian cancers can run in some families. Sometimes this is because mutated genes (the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes) have been passed down to you from your mother or father. These genes dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer. Other times, there may be a strong family history, but no known genetic mutation.
Women of certain races, lineages, and backgrounds may have an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. For example, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis among African American women. People of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry are more likely to carry BRCA gene mutations, which put them at higher risk.
Recent studies show that dense breast tissue is a risk factor for breast cancer. Dense breasts also make tumors more difficult to detect with traditional screening mammography.
Our past experiences shape who we are, from our favorite songs to our health. For some of us, parts of our personal history are a hint that we may be at an increased risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer.
Past factors that can increase our risk are:
If a woman has had cancer in one breast, she has a three- to four-times increased risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast or in another part of the same breast. (This is different from a return of the first cancer, which is called recurrence.) If a woman has had breast cancer, she’s also at an increased risk for developing ovarian cancer.
Women who started menstruating (getting their period) before age 12 or who go through menopause after age 55 have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Risk for developing breast cancer is significantly increased if a woman received radiation treatments to the chest for another cancer (like Hodgkin disease or non-Hodgkin lymphoma) at a young age, particularly while her breasts were developing. Some reports find it to be as much as 12 times the normal risk.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, some women were given diethylstilbestrol (DES) to reduce the risk of miscarriage. Recent studies show DES exposure may increase risk of developing breast cancer not only for those women, but also for women who were exposed to the drug in utero.
Now that you understand breast and ovarian cancer risk factors, it’s time to chat with your doctor to find out what all of this means for you! Your doctor is the best person to advise you on your personal risk and what you can do to live your healthiest life.
Check out our Assess Your Risk Tool to learn more about your own risk level and why it’s important for you to understand it at this time in your life.
You can also take control of your long-term health by learning the things you can do to lower your risk! Read more about Risk Reduction and the steps you can take to be proactive with your breast and ovarian health today.