A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing cancer. Some risk factors such as family history or genetics cannot be changed. Fortunately, there are also risk factors which can be modified.

General Guidelines for All Women

Quit Smoking

Smoking introduces a variety of harmful chemicals into your body. Every cell is affected by smoking. The risk of many cancers, including breast cancer, is much higher in women who smoke. The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and the number of years as a smoker.

Quitting smoking is an important step in preventing breast and other cancers. The sooner smoking is stopped, the sooner the body can start to heal. Talk to your doctor about the options available to help you successfully quit.

If You Drink Alcohol, Drink in Moderation

Alcohol may cause estrogen levels to rise, which increases the risk of certain breast cancers. You can reduce your risk by avoiding alcohol or drinking in moderation, which is no more than one drink per day (for women).

Eat a Healthful Diet

Eating a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will maintain your overall health and strengthen your immune system. A strong immune system is one of the best tools against breast cancer. On the other hand, a diet high in processed and red meat is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Look for healthy alternatives like lean meat (like chicken) and/or fish or vegetarian options.

Good nutrition can also help to maintain a healthy weight. Excess body weight, especially after menopause, which increases breast cancer risk. Fat cells secrete the hormone estrogen. The more fat on the body, the higher the estrogen level. Estrogen is associated with breast cancer development.


Regular exercise is good for overall health, wellness and maintaining a healthy weight. Moderate physical activity has been shown to decrease breast cancer risk of both pre- and postmenopausal women. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise (including brisk walking) on most days of the week. If you currently do not exercise, talk to your doctor about how to get started on a program safely.

Limit Exposure to Estrogen When Possible

High levels of estrogen have been linked to the development of breast cancer. For older women, the greatest exposure to estrogen is through postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy. Talk your doctor as to the risks and benefits of estrogen replacement before using them.

General Guidelines for Women at High Risk

Certain factors increase the risk for breast cancer. The following groups have a higher risk:

  • Age over 60 years
  • Age over 35 years and history of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
  • Genetic mutations like BRCA1 or BRCA2, or strong family history
  • History of irregular breast biopsies
  • History of previous breast cancer

If you are in a high risk group, in addition to guidelines above, your doctor may recommend:

Genetic Testing

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about whether you should be tested for gene mutations associated with breast cancer. Women who carry these particular genes are at very high risk for breast and ovarian cancers.

Estrogen-Blocking Drugs

There are 2 FDA-approved medications to prevent breast cancer in high-risk, postmenopausal women. Tamoxifen and raloxifene work by blocking estrogen from binding to estrogen-sensitive cells, which prevents the cells from growing and dividing. However, these medications also increase your chances of having blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Prophylactic Surgery

Surgery to remove both breasts (prophylactic mastectomy) may be an option for women who are at very high risk for breast cancer. If you have many risk factors for breast cancer, talk to your doctor to see if this is an option for you.

Some women can also lower their risk by having their uterus and/or ovaries removed.

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