Breast Cancer Risk Factors

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The most significant breast cancer risk factors are being a woman and getting older — as most breast cancers occur in women over age 50. Most women don’t get breast cancer, and not all women with the risk factors develop breast cancer.

Knowing your breast cancer risk allows you to address breast cancer risk factors related to lifestyle. You also can be more vigilant about breast cancer prevention and early detection if you are aware of your cancer risk from a family history or other risk factors you can’t control.

Breast self-exams can be lifesaving, especially for younger women who aren’t ready for regular breast cancer screening mammograms. Women ages 40 and older may be ready to start getting an annual mammogram. Guidelines depend on your age and other risk factors.

Clinical breast health exams, in which a health care provider checks for lumps and changes, can provide an early warning sign. Taking note of how your breasts feel and look can help make lumps, pain, size changes or other variations more noticeable. Discuss any changes with your medical provider.

For some with a high breast cancer risk, a breast MRI scan in conjunction with a mammogram may help detect cancer. Breast MRIs, however, can show abnormal results when no cancer is present.

All Norton Healthcare mammogram and breast cancer screening locations use state-of-the-art 3D mammogram technology, meaning fewer patients need to come back for a second exam, and provide more accurate imaging for patients with dense breast tissue or at high risk of breast cancer. Many Norton Healthcare breast radiologists have specialized training in breast radiology.

High Risk for Breast Cancer

Family History and Genetic Mutations

Sharing your family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and other cancers with your primary care provider can help determine your risk level and whether you should start getting mammograms.

You are at higher risk if an immediate relative — parent, sibling or child — has had breast cancer.

Inherited variations to your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes may create a high risk for breast cancer and possibly ovarian cancer, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk increases as well if you have multiple family members with breast or ovarian cancer on your father’s or mother’s side. Having a first-degree (parent, sibling or child) male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk. Male breast cancer is rare and more common in older men. If caught early, it is often curable.

For some, genetic counseling and possibly testing for a gene mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes is warranted. Not everyone who inherits a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes will get cancer. Similarly, inherited forms of cancer can be passed along that don’t involve mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Previous Radiation Therapy

Patients who receive radiation to the chest or breasts to treat conditions such as Hodgkin lymphoma before age 30 have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Radiation to the face as an adolescent to treat acne is also associated with a high risk for breast cancer later in life.

If you had radiation therapy while your breasts were developing in adolescence, your risk is higher.

Moderate Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Previous Breast Cancer

A personal history of breast cancer carries a moderate risk of developing breast cancer in the other breast or elsewhere in the same breast. This is different from a recurrence of developing breast cancer in the same site.

Benign Breast Lesion History

Certain benign breast lesions such as atypical ductal hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are a risk factor for developing breast cancer.

Overweight or Obesity

Overweight or obesity in postmenopausal women is a risk factor for breast cancer.

Lesser Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Hormone Replacement Therapy

Menopausal hormone therapy that involves estrogen and progesterone for more than five years can raise risk for breast cancer. Certain birth control pills also have been found to raise breast cancer risk.

A 2020 study estimated that combined estrogen-progesterone therapy would mean nine additional breast cancer cases per 10,000 for younger individuals and an additional 36 per 10,000 for older individuals per year. The study showed taking estrogen and progesterone for more than five years results in a significant increase in breast cancer risk.

Early Menstruation and Late Menopause

Starting menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, resulting in an increased risk of getting breast cancer.

Delayed Childbirth or Not Having Children

A first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding and never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.


The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk for breast cancer. The body breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, which damages your DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage. Damaged DNA can allow a cell to grow out of control into cancer cells and create a tumor.

Dense Breast Tissue

The high level of connective tissue, rather than fatty tissue, in dense breasts can make it difficult to spot tumors on a mammogram. It can be difficult to distinguish between a small tumor and dense breast tissue.

Dense breast tissue also carries an increased risk of breast cancer, although breast cancer patients with dense breast tissue are not more likely to die of breast cancer than patients with fatty breast tissue.

Scientists don’t yet understand the link between breast density and a higher risk of breast cancer.

Why Choose Norton Cancer Institute

More patients in Louisville and Southern Indiana choose Norton Cancer Institute than any other provider in the area. We provide compassionate care for the whole person, not just the cancer.

Our Norton Cancer Institute oncologists are also researchers and principal investigators, offering patients sophisticated experience in the latest treatments and access to more than 200 clinical trials.

  • Access to more than 100 specialists, including board-certified and fellowship-trained oncologists
  • Multidisciplinary setting, meaning you get the benefit of opinions from multiple specialists across Norton Healthcare and often can schedule appointments for the same day in the same location
  • Immunotherapies such as CAR-T cell therapy, genetic therapies tailored to combat the unique genetic makeup of your cancer and the latest in surgical treatments, chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • State-of-the-art Norton Cancer Institute Genomics Lab offering highly specialized testing that makes it possible to tailor advanced treatments based on a tumor’s specific genetic composition
  • Robotic-assisted bronchoscopy for minimally invasive lung biopsies that can reach more parts of the lung without major surgery
  • Medicare, Medicaid and most major commercial insurance accepted
  • At Norton Specialty Pharmacy, patients receive regular consultations on their medications and treatment plan, making sure they get their prescriptions quickly and accurately. Our specialty pharmacists collaborate closely with your oncology team.
  • Use your free Norton MyChart account to communicate with your provider, manage appointments, refill prescriptions, get on the wait list for an earlier appointment and more anytime from a mobile device or computer

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