Most of us know our lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is about 12% – 1 in 8. But that’s an average, based on the entire population of women: old, young, those of us without apparent risk factors, and those whose known risk factors might be as high as 80%. Researchers have recently started to piece together combinations of specific factors that raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer – making it possible to narrow down your own, personal risk.
The National Cancer Institute, the chief governmental body charged with understanding cancer and seeking its cure, released a report at the end of last month that could change the way you live.
The NCI study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, both refines the current breast cancer risk assessment model; and offers risk models for ovarian and endometrial cancers.
These three cancers share many of the same risk factors; so a woman diagnosed with breast cancer is likely at higher risk for ovarian and endometrial cancers as well. Knowing exactly what the risk factors are for all three of these cancers might inform certain lifestyle changes in women who find themselves at high risk.
This new, preliminary model doesn’t cover all women; it’s based on two large studies that focused chiefly on white, non-Hispanic women over age 50. But if you’re in that demographic, you may find the following information useful in terms of understanding your cancer risk, and doing something about it.
We all know the chief risk factor for “female cancers” (breast, ovarian, endometrial) is being female; and the next most important factor is growing older. Nothing we can do about either of those, right?
Unfortunately, many of the risk factors identified in the new NCI study are also out of our control. But some are the result of choices we make; so in some small measure, each of us can influence our own personal risk of cancer.
Take a look at this list of risk factors (remember, this study included only white women over age 50, though it includes behaviors they may have chosen as younger women). All of the following raise your risk of cancer:
•Early menarche (getting your first period at a young age)
•Waiting longer to have children
•Using hormonal birth control
•Having fewer children
•Using hormone replacement therapy drugs, during or outside of menopause
•Being older at menopause
•A family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer
•Benign breast disease leading to biopsy (e.g., fibrocystic change)
•Higher BMI (body mass index)
So, what’s actionable here?
If you’re a young woman reading this, you’re probably focusing on the use of birth control; waiting longer to start a family, and how many children you’d ultimately like to have.
Most young women these days use birth control; start their families later than the women of a couple of generations ago; and have fewer children. Be aware that these choices do raise your cancer risk; but they’re just a few of the many factors, the majority still unknown, that cause cancer.