Multiple risk factors can influence a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer during her lifetime. While many of these risk factors are controllable, such as being overweight after menopause, being physically inactive and drinking alcohol, other risk factors, like age, are beyond a woman’s control. This is not to say that every woman will develop breast cancer as she advances in age. However, the risk of breast cancer does increase with age.
Breast cancer can strike women of any age – from the very young to the elderly – but you are far from helpless in your defense against this disease. Understanding how age affects breast cancer risk can motivate you to adhere to recommended screenings, like breast exams and mammograms, to better support early detection.
How is Age and Breast Cancer Risk Linked?
According to the National Cancer Institute, a woman in the United States has a 12.8% chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her lifetime. This chance has fluctuated only slightly over the last ten years. While this figure may seem high, there are some important caveats you should know. First of all, this 1 in 8 chance represents an average for all American women. Some women, such as those with relatives who have battled breast cancer, have a higher personal risk. Other women will have a much lower personal risk.
Another important point is that the 12.8% risk is not constant throughout a lifespan. In other words, a 25-year-old woman has a much lower breast cancer risk than she would at 65. Breast cancer risk increases as a woman ages. For example, a 30-year-old woman has a chance of only 1 in 208 of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the next decade. In comparison, a 70-year-old woman’s ten-year chance of developing breast cancer is much higher at 1 in 25. The majority of breast cancer cases in the US are discovered in women age 50 and older.
What About Other Risk Factors?
The CDC provides an excellent outline of breast cancer risks. In addition to age, family history and genetics are two other significant but uncontrollable breast cancer risk factors. Having close relatives, such as a mother or sisters, with breast cancer increases a woman’s own breast cancer risk. Also, having certain genetic mutations like the BRCA1 gene can raise the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Being aware of these risk factors and communicate them to your healthcare team so they can assess your risk and monitor you as needed.
Controllable risk factors include obstetric history, alcohol intake and weight. Women who have their first child after age 30 or who never carry a pregnancy to term have a greater breast cancer risk than other women. Also, heavy drinking can increase your chances of developing breast cancer, as well as other chronic diseases.
Recent research has reinforced the importance of weight control in reducing breast cancer risk, especially among older women. A study of more than 180,000 women over ten years showed that steady weight loss of even very modest amounts was linked to a lower risk of breast cancer in women over 50 years old. These results illustrate the value of weight loss in the postmenopausal years.
What Steps Should You Take?
You should begin mammographic surveillance for signs of breast cancer at age 40 or sooner in certain cases. Be aware if you have dense breasts that may interfere with mammography. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also recommends that you practice “breast self-awareness.” This term means that you get to know the shape, size, consistency, and feel of your breasts and nipples and that you report any changes to your OB-GYN immediately.
However, breast self-awareness is no substitute for a clinical examination by an expert. You should be receiving regular breast exams from your OB-GYN as part of your well-woman care. These examinations are an important component of the overall evaluation and early detection of breast cancer. Even if you can’t eliminate uncontrollable risk factors like your age, you can increase your chances of surviving breast cancer by following surveillance recommendations.
About the Connecticut OBGYN Practice
Dr. John Garofalo, M.D., is a CT OBGYN based in Fairfield County, providing care for Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan, Weston, Rowayton and the surrounding areas. He has more than 20 years of practice and surgical experience covering many facets of obstetrics and gynecology.
Laury Berkwitt, APRN, is a nurse practitioner specializing in women’s health in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Women undergoing signs and symptoms of menopause can make an appointment with Laury for Hormone Replacement Therapy. Laury has a passion for providing quality women’s health care in a safe and comfortable manner by creating a trusting patient-practitioner relationship. She has been in practice for more than 10 years, caring for women of all ages.