No two women are the same. But when it comes to breast cancer, women from all walks of life share various risk factors for a disease that the World Health Organization indicates is the most frequent cancer among women.

Risk factors are anything that affects the likelihood that individuals will get a certain disease. In regard to breast cancer, the American Breast Cancer Foundation notes that various factors, some that result from lifestyle choices and others that are not changeable, can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Recognizing these risk factors can help women make any necessary changes and even highlight the importance of routine cancer screenings that can detect the presence of the disease in its earliest, most treatable stages.

Women generally should start mammograms when they’re 40 years old when they are of average risk, said Natalia Menert, nurse practitioner at Providence Comprehensive Breast Center in Everett. Women should also conduct monthly, self-breast exams. 

“A lot of people find their own precancerous lesions when they do their own breast exams,” Menert said. 

Lifestyle-related risk factors

The ABCF notes that certain habits or behaviors can increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer. But the good news is that women who understand the link between certain habits or behaviors and breast cancer can avoid those behaviors to decrease their risk of developing the disease. 

An increased body mass index can increase the risk of breast cancer, especially when the number is higher than the ideal range of 19 to 25, Menert said. Fat produces estrogen and around 75 percent of breast cancers are “hormone receptor positive,” which means they grow from female hormones. 

According to, the following are some habits, behaviors or lifestyle choices that can increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer.

Alcohol consumption: notes that researchers have uncovered links between the consumption of alcoholic beverages and hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. One study found that women who consume three alcoholic beverages per week have a 15 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who don’t drink at all. 

Menert said alcoholic consumption be limited to one alcoholic beverage or less a day. An alcoholic beverage is considered 1 ounce of liquor, or six ounces of wine or eight ounces of beer.

While research into the connection is limited, a 2009 study found a link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer recurrence.

Sedentary lifestyle: Exercise consumes and controls blood sugar and limits blood levels of insulin growth factor. That’s an important connection, as insulin growth factor can affect how breast cells grow and behave. A sedentary lifestyle also can increase a woman’s risk of being obese, which the ABCF notes is a risk factor for breast cancer among postmenopausal women.

Menert said the Susan G. Komen Foundation noted activity equal to walking 30 minutes a day may reduce the risk of breast cancer by around 3 percent. Exercise helps maintain weight and affects blood estrogen levels.

Exercise could also boost the immune system. The American Cancer Society recommends people should get 150 minutes of physical activity per week to lower overall cancer risk. 

Smoking: Smoking has long been linked to cancer, and notes that smoking has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. 

Unchangeable risk factors

Unfortunately, many risk factors for breast cancer are beyond women’s control. For example, the ABCF notes that roughly two out of three invasive breast cancers occur in women age 55 and older. Women cannot change their ages, but recognizing the link between age and breast cancer risk is important, as such a recognition may compel more women 55 and older to prioritize cancer screening.

Gender and family history are two additional unchangeable risk factors for breast cancer. Women are much more likely to get breast cancer than men. In addition, notes that between 5 and 10 percent of breast cancers are believed to be caused by abnormal genes that are passed from parent to child. 

It’s important to know unchangeable risk factors and to talk with a primary care provider about them. “We can monitor you more closely,” Menert said. 

If someone has a history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer or cancers such as pancreatic cancer, they should consult with their primary care provider to see if they are a candidate for a genetics consultation. 

Should someone have a higher risk for breast cancer, then they should start mammograms earlier, Menert said. Women should start 10 years earlier than when the age the youngest member of their family got diagnosed with breast cancer.

Women are not weaponless in the fight against breast cancer. Knowledge of breast cancer, including its various risk factors, is a great weapon against it as women look to reduce their risk of developing the disease.  

For more information about Providence’s Comprehensive Breast Center, go to

Other resources concerning breast cancer include:


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