Breast cancer becomes more common as one ages. Approximately one out of eight invasive breast cancers develop in women younger than 45. Yet about two out of three invasive breast cancers are found in women 55 or older — which is why it’s crucial for senior women to consider breast cancer prevention.

The best defenses against breast cancer are knowledge, maintaining your health, and getting the recommended screenings.

What You Should Know About Breast Cancer

The chances for developing breast cancer vary, but listed below are some factors that may help you discover if you are at an increased risk:

Genetic mutations to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are a risk factor. Typically these genes work as tumor suppressors to help keep breast, ovarian, and other types of cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. When a mutation occurs in these genes, however, the chances for breast, ovarian and other cancers are raised.

Breasts that contain more connective and glandular tissue than fatty tissue are described as “mammographically dense.” Women with dense breasts are more likely to develop breast cancer than those with less dense breasts. Another challenge having dense breasts makes it harder to see tumors on a mammogram.

Experiencing menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 raises the risk of breast cancer due to a longer exposure to hormones.

A woman who has had breast cancer or some non-cancerous diseases, such as atypical hyperplasia, is at greater risk.

Women who have undergone radiation therapy to the chest or breasts before age 30 have an increased chance of breast cancer later in life.

A family history of breast or ovarian cancer, especially if the family member is a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter), or multiple family members on either the mother’s or father’s side have had breast or ovarian cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises the risk.

Women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was given to some pregnant women in the U.S. between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, can increase the chances for breast cancer.

Not being physically active increases the risk for breast cancer. Research shows a link between exercising regularly at a moderate or intense level four to seven hours per week and a lower risk of breast cancer. Exercise consumes and controls blood sugar, and limits blood levels of the insulin growth factor that can affect how breast cells grow and behave — making it a great, healthy tactic for breast cancer prevention.

Being overweight or obese after menopause is a risk factor. Excess fat tissue can increase your chances  by raising estrogen levels. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of insulin, which has also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.

Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both estrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise the risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years. Certain oral contraceptives (birth control pills) also have been found to raise breast cancer risk.

Having the first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.

Drinking alcohol. Research shows the more alcohol a woman drinks, the greater the risks of breast cancer. If you’re taking strides toward breast cancer prevention, abstaining from alcohol consumption can make a big difference.

Smoking is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. Research also has shown that there may be a link between very heavy second-hand smoke exposure and a breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

  • Lump in underarm area
  • Swelling of part of the breast
  • Swelling of all of the breast
  • Skin dimpling
  • Nipple turning inward
  • Nipple discharge
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Skin irritation

Breast Cancer Screenings

Finding breast cancer early and getting it treated are the most important strategies to prevent death.

The American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines provide important detailed information about screening for breast cancer. The information is broken down between women with average risk and those at high risk. The best way to determine your risk is to talk to your health care provider.

Some of the ACS guidelines have changed. For example: Clinical breast exams — a physical exam performed by a health professional—are no longer recommended due to improvements in mammography and women’s increased awareness and response to breast symptoms.

Also, evidence does not show breast self-exams reduce deaths from breast cancer. However, the ACS notes that it is important for “women to be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel, and to report any changes to a health care provider right away.”

For more prevention tips, visit Bethesda’s Health & Wellness blog.