Emory Report

September 28, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 6


October is breast cancer awareness month. Are you aware of your risk?

Once, during a presentation, I heard a woman say, "I am so lucky; no one in my family has ever had breast cancer." Although this is a common belief-that breast cancer is an inherited risk-most women who get the disease do not have a family history. Every woman should consider herself at risk.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the second leading cause of female cancer deaths. Men can get breast cancer too-about one in every 100 cases occurs in men.

The American Cancer Society has identified the following risks for breast cancer that cannot be changed:

  • Being a woman is the main risk factor.
  • As you get older, the risk of breast cancer increases. About three-quarters of women with breast cancer are over age 50 at the time they are diagnosed.
  • Recent studies have found that about 5-10 percent of breast cancers are hereditary and are related to changes to the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. For more information about genetic risks and testing, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345.
  • If you have a close blood relative from either side of the family who had breast cancer, you may be at higher risk. Women whose mother, sister or daughter were diagnosed with the disease may have twice the risk of getting breast cancer. Having two "first-degree" relatives increases the risk fivefold.
  • European-American women have a slightly higher risk, but African-American women are more likely to die of the disease. Asian and Hispanic women have lower risks.
  • Women who began menstruating at an early age (before 12) or who went through late menopause (after 50) may be at a slightly higher risk.

The following risk factors are controllable:

  • It is not clear how birth control pills affect breast cancer risk. You should consider this, as well as your other risks for breast cancer.
  • Women who have not had children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher risk.
  • Long-term use--10 years or more--of estrogen replacement therapy after menopause may slightly increase the risk. Because there are important positive benefits from estrogen replacement, the decision should be made after careful consideration of the risks and benefits.
  • Women who consume one alcoholic drink a day have a small increase in risk. Those who have two to five drinks a day have about 1.5 times the risk.
  • No studies have definitely linked cigarette smoking to breast cancer, but smoking affects overall health.
  • Being overweight has been suggested as a breast cancer risk in many studies, but studies of fat in the diet give conflicting results.
  • Preliminary findings of current research find that intense physical activity does provide protection against some breast cancers.
  • Current research does not clearly show a link between breast cancer risk and exposure to environmental pollutants such as pesticide DDE and PCB's, although there might be other possible environmental relationships to the disease.

The American Cancer Society recommends the following early-detection practices:

  • Monthly breast self-exam beginning at age 20.
  • Yearly mammograms by age 40; women with a family history of breast cancer should begin earlier.
  • Yearly breast examination by a health care professional.


Linda Lee, a registered oncology nurse, works as a cancer risk educator for WellStar Health System and is an American Cancer Society volunteer.

"Wellness" is coordinated by the Office of Health Promotion of the School of Public Health. For more information on breast cancer programming and other wellness activities, call 404-727-2853 or visit their web site at <http://www.sph.emory.edu/WELLNESS>.

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