Breast cancer in women : Causes

The causes of breast cancer aren't fully understood, making it difficult to say why one woman may develop breast cancer and another may not.

However, there are risk factors known to affect your likelihood of developing breast cancer. Some of these you cannot do anything about, but there are some you can change.


Age

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. The condition is most common among women over 50 who have been through the menopause. About 8 out of 10 cases of breast cancer occur in women over 50.

All women who are 50 to 70 years of age should be screened for breast cancer every three years as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme.

Women over the age of 70 are still eligible to be screened and can arrange this through their GP or local screening unit.

Read more about breast screening.

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Family history

If you have close relatives who have had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, you may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

However, because breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, it's possible for it to occur in more than one family member by chance.

Most cases of breast cancer do not run in families, but particular genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 can increase your risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. It's possible for these genes to be passed on from a parent to their child. 

Other newly detected genes, such as TP53 and CHEK 2, are also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

If you have, for example, 2 or more close relatives from the same side of your family – such as your mother, sister or daughter – who have had breast cancer under the age of 50, you may be eligible for surveillance for breast cancer, or genetic screening to look for the genes that make developing breast cancer more likely.

If you're worried about your family history of breast cancer, discuss it with your GP.

Read about predictive genetic tests for cancer risk genes.

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Previous breast cancer or lump

If you've previously had breast cancer or early non-invasive cancer cell changes in breast ducts, you have a higher risk of developing it again, either in your other breast or in the same breast.

benign breast lump does not mean you have breast cancer, but certain types of lump may also slightly increase your risk of developing it.

Certain benign changes in your breast tissue, such as cells growing abnormally in ducts (atypical ductal hyperplasia), or abnormal cells inside your breast lobes (lobular carcinoma in situ), can make getting breast cancer more likely.

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Dense breast tissue

Your breasts are made up of thousands of tiny glands (lobules) that produce milk. This glandular tissue contains a higher concentration of breast cells than other breast tissue, making it denser.

Women with dense breast tissue may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer as there are more cells that can become cancerous.

Dense breast tissue can also make a breast scan (mammogram) difficult to read, as any lumps or areas of abnormal tissue are harder to spot.

Younger women tend to have denser breasts. As you get older, the amount of glandular tissue in your breasts decreases and is replaced by fat, so your breasts become less dense.

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Hormones and hormone medicine

Exposure to oestrogen

The female hormone oestrogen can sometimes stimulate breast cancer cells and cause them to grow.

The ovaries, where your eggs are stored, begin to produce oestrogen when you start puberty to regulate your periods.

Your risk of developing breast cancer may rise slightly with the amount of oestrogen your body is exposed to.

For example, if you started your periods at a young age and experienced the menopause at a late age, you'll have been exposed to oestrogen over a longer period of time.

In the same way, not having children or having children later in life may slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer because your exposure to oestrogen is not interrupted by pregnancy.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

All types of HRT can increase the risk of breast cancer except for vaginal oestrogen.

There is no increased risk of breast cancer if you take HRT for less than 1 year.

But if you take HRT for longer than 1 year, you have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who never use HRT.

It's estimated that for women in their 40s and 50s who take combined HRT for 10 years there will be 4 extra cases for every 100 women.

The increased risk of breast cancer falls after you stop taking HRT but some increased risk remains for more than 10 years compared to women who have never used HRT.

The prolonged use of HRT is not usually recommended, especially if you find it possible to cope with symptoms of the menopause.

Contraceptive pill

Research has shown that women who use the contraceptive pill have a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer.

However, the risk starts to decrease once you stop taking the pill, and your risk of breast cancer is back to normal 10 years after stopping.

Cancer Research UK has more information about the contraceptive pill and cancer risk.

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Lifestyle factors

Being overweight or obese

If you've experienced the menopause and are overweight or obese, you may be more at risk of developing breast cancer.

This is thought to be linked to the amount of oestrogen in your body, as being overweight or obese after the menopause causes more oestrogen to be produced.

Alcohol

Your risk of developing breast cancer can increase with the amount of alcohol you drink.

Research shows that for every 200 women who regularly have 2 alcoholic drinks a day, there are 3 more women with breast cancer compared with women who do not drink at all.

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Radiation

Certain medical procedures that use radiation, such as X-rays and computerised tomography (CT) scans, may increase your risk of developing breast cancer very slightly.

If you had radiotherapy to your chest area for Hodgkin lymphoma when you were a child, you should have already received a letter from the Department of Health inviting you for a consultation with a specialist to discuss your increased risk of developing breast cancer.

See your GP if you were not contacted or if you did not attend a consultation. You're usually entitled to having your breast checked with an MRI scan.

If you currently need radiotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma, your specialist should discuss the risk of breast cancer before your treatment begins.

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