Menopause itself is not associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. However, the rates of many cancers, including breast cancer, do increase with age. In addition, some of the drugs used to manage menopausal symptoms may increase or decrease a person's cancer risk.
What Are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?
Certain factors increase the risk of developing breast cancer. However, having many risk factors does not mean a woman will develop breast cancer, and having no risk factors does not mean she will not develop the disease.
Age is the single-most important risk factor for breast cancer. The chances of developing the disease increase with age. About 95% of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are over age 40, and about half are age 61 and older.
Personal risk is also greater if an immediate family member (mother, sister, or daughter) has had breast cancer, particularly if it was at an early age. Also, women who have had a breast biopsy (removal of breast tissue) that shows certain types of benign disease, such as atypical hyperplasia, are more likely to get breast cancer.
Other risk factors include:
- Having cancer in one breast (may recur or develop in other)
- Having a history of ovarian, uterine, or colon cancer
- Having a genetic abnormality such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
- Late menopause (after age 55)
- Starting menstruation early in life (before age 12)
- Having a first child after age 30
- Never having children
- Being overweight or obese after menopause
Does Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer?
Evidence suggests that the longer a woman is exposed to female hormones (either made by the body, taken as a drug, or delivered by a patch), the more likely she is to develop breast cancer.
Hormone replacement therapy may be given to postmenopausal women who have menopausal symptoms. The longer a woman is on HRT with a combination of estrogen and progestin, the greater her chances may be of being diagnosed with breast cancer. It is unclear if HRT with estrogen alone, which is sometimes prescribed for women who have had a hysterectomy, increases the risk of breast cancer.
Can I Prevent Breast Cancer?
While there is no definitive way to prevent breast cancer, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Be physically active and get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise five or more days per week.
- Eat a healthy diet with at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily; limit the amount of processed meat and red meat eaten.
- Women should drink no more than one alcoholic beverage daily (men should drink no more than two alcoholic beverages daily).
How Is Breast Cancer Detected and Diagnosed?
Detection of breast cancer in its early stages -- hopefully before it moves outside the breast -- can significantly improve the chances that treatment will be successful.
The survival rate from breast cancer increases when the disease is detected and treated early.
Many breast cancer experts, including the American Cancer Society, recommend beginning routine screening for breast cancer with a mammogram at age 45. Others suggest waiting till age 50. Your doctor may recommend starting earlier than age 45, depending on your individual risk factors.
The purpose of a mammogram is to find abnormalities that are too small to be seen or felt. However, mammograms will not detect all breast cancers, which is why physical breast exams are very important.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women in their 20s and 30s have a health care provider perform a breast exam every one to three years and then every year once they turn 40.
The ACS states that research has not shown a clear benefit of performing regular breast self-exams. Women who choose to perform breast self-exams should have their technique reviewed during an exam by a health care provider. Any change in their breasts noted on breast self-exams should be reported promptly to a doctor.
Women who are considered to have an increased risk for breast cancer may benefit from getting a yearly MRI of their breasts along with their yearly mammogram. Three-dimensional mammography may also be an option for some women.
To find out if you are at increased risk for breast cancer, consult your doctor.