Who is at risk for breast cancer?

Focus on breast health: Who is at risk for breast cancer?


Focus on Breast Health is a series of tips to inform and empower you to be proactive about all aspects of breast care.  

By Dr. Lisa D. Curcio, Breast Surgery, Northern Dutchess Hospital


We are all at risk for breast cancer but women are at much higher risk compared to men. Not all women carry the same risk of developing breast cancer. Knowing your individual risk of breast cancer may help you make changes to reduce it.


Who is at average risk of breast cancer?

The average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer is about 13 percent. In other words, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. Risk increases with age, with most breast cancers diagnosed after age 50.


Who is at high risk of breast cancer?

You may be at high risk of developing breast cancer if you have:

  • A strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, including first-degree relatives (mom, sister or daughter) or multiple family members on your mom or dad’s side of the family.
  • A personal history of breast cancer because you are more likely to develop the disease a second time.
  • A personal history of pre-cancerous breast diseases, such as atypical hyperplasia.
  • An inherited genetic predisposition to breast cancer, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.
  • Dense breasts because it is harder to see tumors on a mammogram.


Reproductive history can also influence risk of breast cancer, including:

  • Starting your period before age 12 and menopause after age 55 exposes you to hormones longer.
  • Having your first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding or never having a full-term pregnancy could affect normal breast cell growth.


Other factors that could increase risk for breast cancer that are less common include:

  • You had previous radiation therapy to the breast or chest area before age 30.
  • You took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriage, which was given to pregnant women in the United States from 1940 to 1971.


Related article: Myth Busters: Separating fact from fiction about breast cancer


How can women reduce their risk of developing breast cancer?

Remember, if you are at high risk of breast cancer that does not mean you will get it. However, it can be helpful to know your level of risk and find ways to reduce it.


All women can reduce their risk of breast cancer — and other cancers and diseases — by:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Avoiding moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption
  • Not smoking tobacco


Related article: Nutrition to reduce breast cancer risk


For women at high risk of breast cancer, seek care and reassurance from a breast specialist. We can guide you through a risk assessment and genetic counseling and testing to make decisions that fit your life.


In addition to following these strategies to reduce your risk of breast cancer, screening mammograms are another tool you can use to take control of your health.


Women at average-risk of breast cancer should start screening mammograms at age 40. Your breast specialist may recommend starting sooner if you are at high risk of the disease. Screening mammograms are currently the most reliable and effective way to detect breast cancer early before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Learn more about mammography at Nuvance Health and request an appointment.


The bottom line: Knowledge is power. Knowing your individual risk of breast cancer may help you make changes to reduce it.


Understanding and managing your breast cancer risk includes getting annual screening mammograms. At Nuvance Health, you can schedule your screening mammogram without a doctor’s order. If you are age 40 or older, at average risk for breast cancer and have no symptoms of breast cancer, visit to request a screening mammogram appointment.