Causes And Risk Factors Of Breast Cancer

What are the causes of breast cancer?

The causes of breast cancer may be sporadic, familial, or hereditary. Sporadic breast cancer means breast cancer that is not due to an inherited gene mutation. There are multiple risk factors responsible for sporadic breast cancer: hormonal, dietary, lifestyle-induced, benign breast diseases, and environmental factors are significant causes of breast cancer.

Causes of breast cancer

The majority of occurences are sporadic (approximately 70%), while 20-25% causes of breast cancer are familial, and only 5-10% are hereditary. Hereditary causes of breast cancer have mutated genes like BRCA. Familial causes of breast cancer have no apparent mutations in genes, but other family members are at higher risk of developing breast or other cancers. Some can be modified, and their presence indicates a necessity for regular screening or active surveillance.

Non-modifiable risk factors: Genetic causes of breast cancer

Being a woman

Being a woman is the most significant risk factor for breast cancer. Women have a 100 times higher risk than men do. Male breast cancer contribution is less than 1% of the total breast cancer burden.

Being an older woman

Women aged above 50 are at more risk to develop breast cancer than younger women. This risk is considered to be the highest for women in their 70s. In the last decade, because of the change in lifestyle and environment, the number of young breast cancers is increasing.

Family history

Breast cancer (and the genetic mutations responsible for the disease) can be passed on within a family. Having a close blood relative with confirmed breast cancer increases the risk of developing the disease, especially in later years. A woman is considered to be at 2X risk of developing breast cancer if a direct female blood relative such as her mother, sister (or even daughter) is diagnosed positive. If a woman has two or more first-degree relatives with breast cancer, her risk of developing the disease increases threefold. Up to 10% of all cases of breast cancer are hereditary.

Personal history of having breast cancer

Patients with a prior history of breast cancer are at a higher risk of developing contralateral breast cancer (in the opposite breast), or in the different quadrant of the same breast if the patient had undergone breast conservative surgery.

Genetic abnormalities

Hereditary breast cancer constitutes 5-10% of all breast cancer. The most common genetic mutations occur in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women with a mutated BRCA1 gene have a 60-85% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer while BRCA2 mutated patients have a 40-60 % lifetime risk. BRCA mutated patients also have a 20-30% lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. There are other genes like p53, PTEN, ATM, which can lead to hereditary breast cancer.

Race and ethnicity

There is a direct link between breast cancer and a patient’s race. For example, white Caucasian women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer as compared to Asian, African-American, or Hispanic women. Survival outcomes also vary with race. For example, the probability of breast cancer-related death is higher in African American women and Hispanic women than in Caucasian women. Also, African-American women are most likely to develop an aggressive form of breast cancer at a much younger age than women of other races and ethnicities.

History of menstrual activity

Early menarche and late menopause are important risk factors for breast cancer that is women who attained puberty before the age of 12 (with early menstrual activity), and women who attain menopause after the age of 55 are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. More prolonged exposure towards estrogen stimulates the growth of cells within breast tissues. Similarly, exposure to hormone replacement therapies (HRT) after menopause can also boost a woman’s breast cancer risk.

Dense breasts

Breast density is a significant risk factor. Patients with high breast density are at 2-4 times higher risk of developing breast cancer. Having dense breasts also makes it harder for mammograms to make early detection of a cancerous lesion in the breast tissues.

Previous breast changes/breast abnormalities

If any of the following conditions is present, a woman is considered to be at higher risk of developing breast cancer are a personal history of:

  • benign breast lumps
  • breast lumps
  • breast cancer
  • benign breast disease

Modifiable risk factors: Environmental and lifestyle causes of breast cancer

Lack of physical activity

People with low or no physical activity are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Research has shown that 4 to 7 hours of moderate-to-intense exercise every week can significantly reduce breast cancer risk.

Being overweight/obese

Women who continue to remain overweight/obese after menopause are more likely to develop breast cancer. This risk is commonly attributed to estrogen secretion by fat cells after the age of menopause. Also, being overweight increases the levels of insulin present in the blood, which in turn boosts a woman’s breast cancer risk. Women who have completed breast cancer treatment are also at a higher risk of recurrence if they continue to remain overweight.

Alcohol consumption

Studies have shown that women who consume two or more alcoholic beverages in a day are at a 1.5 times higher risk of developing breast cancer as compared to women who do not consume alcohol. This risk is seen to increase with more significant proportions of daily alcohol intake.


Young and pre-menopausal women who smoke are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Research has also demonstrated the links between massive second-hand smoke exposure and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.

Exposure to radiation (before the age of 30)

Women exposed to prolonged chest radiation at an early age are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer later in their lives. Women who have received radiation to the chest to treat any type of cancer other than breast cancer (such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, chest wall sarcoma) are also at a higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who have not received radiation therapy.

Pregnancy timelines

Women who do not get pregnant at all (nulliparous), or get pregnant after the age of 30, or did not complete a full-time pregnancy are also at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Breastfeeding history

Women who have breastfed their babies for one year or more are at a lower risk of developing breast cancer as compared to those who have not.

History of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) refers to the treatment used to relieve women from symptoms of menopause. HRT replaces hormones that are at a lower level, as women approach menopause. Women who are currently receiving HRT or have received it in the near past, have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Emerging causes of breast cancer

Vitamin D deficiency

Women with low levels of vitamin D are at an increased risk of developing aggressive/invasive forms of breast cancer. Vitamin D plays a vital role in controlling the regular growth rate of breast cells and may be able to stop breast cancer cells from growing.

Exposure to artificial light at night

Survey results have shown that women who work in night shifts, including doctors, nurses, and police officers, are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who work during daylight. Increased exposure to artificial light at night causes this. Women who live in areas with high levels of artificial external light during the night (e.g., street light) also face a higher breast cancer risk.

Eating junk/unhealthy food

Unhealthy dietary habits are partly responsible for breast cancer. Whole foods and foods rich in antioxidants can boost human immune activity, and reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Eating processed foods/chemically preserved foods

Chemical food preservatives and enhancers include pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones used on both crops and livestock. Research shows that these can contribute to an increase in breast cancer risk. The risk extends to mercury found in seafood and industrial chemicals used in the food and food packaging.

Eating grilled meat

Research shows that women who eat a lot of grilled, barbecued, or smoked meats are at a higher risk of breast cancer compared to those who have a diet of fruits and vegetables.

Heavy use of cosmetics

Recent research suggests that exposure to certain chemicals found in cosmetics can contribute to the growth of breast tumors.

Excessive use of sunscreen

The use of sunscreen is intended to protect us against UV rays. However, recent research suggests that excessive levels of exposure to some of the chemicals that are part of sunscreens can lead to breast cancer.

High exposure to plastic

Research has it that at certain exposure levels, some of the chemicals used in manufacturing plastic products, such as bisphenol A (BPA), may act as carcinogens and boost breast cancer risk.

Exposure to chemicals in gardening products

Research-backed evidence supports the theory that chemicals used in lawn and garden products may boost cancer risk. Also, it is difficult to establish definitive cause and effect for any specific chemical. Exposure to such substances are dangerous.

Drinking contaminated water

More than 206 drinking water contaminants are identified to date. There is no conclusive evidence relating these pollutants directly with breast cancer; government bodies regulate some of these contaminants (such as chlorine and fluoride).

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