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Women who have not had children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk overall. Having many pregnancies and becoming pregnant at an early age reduces breast cancer risk overall. Still, the effect of pregnancy is different for different types of breast cancer. For a certain type of breast cancer known as triple-negative, pregnancy seems to increase risk.
Oral contraceptives: Studies have found that women using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. Over time, this risk seems to go back to normal once the pills are stopped. Women who stopped using oral contraceptives more than 10 years ago do not appear to have any increased breast cancer risk. When thinking about using oral contraceptives, women should discuss their other risk factors for breast cancer with their health care team.
Depot-medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA; Depo-Provera) is an injectable form of progesterone that is given once every 3 months as birth control. A few studies have looked at the effect of DMPA on breast cancer risk. Women currently using DMPA seem to have an increase in risk, but the risk doesn’t seem to be increased if this drug was used more than 5 years ago.
Hormone therapy using estrogen (often combined with progesterone) has been used for many years to help relieve symptoms of menopause and to help prevent osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). Earlier studies suggested it might have other health benefits as well, but those benefits have not been found in more recent, better designed studies. This treatment goes by many names, such as post-menopausal hormone therapy (PHT), hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and menopausal hormone therapy (MHT).
There are 2 main types of hormone therapy. For women who still have a uterus (womb), doctors generally prescribe estrogen and progesterone (known as combined hormone therapy or HT). Progesterone is needed because estrogen alone can increase the risk of cancer of the uterus. For women who’ve had a hysterectomy (those who no longer have a uterus), estrogen alone can be prescribed. This is commonly known as estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) or justestrogen therapy (ET).
Combined hormone therapy (HT): Use of combined post-menopausal hormone therapy increases the risk of getting breast cancer. It may also increase the chances of dying from breast cancer. This increase in risk can be seen with as little as 2 years of use. Large studies have found that there is an increased risk of breast cancer related to the use of combined HT. Combined HT also increases the likelihood that the cancer may be found at a more advanced stage.
The increased risk from combined HT appears to apply only to current and recent users. A woman’s breast cancer risk seems to return to that of the general population within 5 years of stopping treatment.
The word bioidentical is sometimes used to describe versions of estrogen and progesterone with the same chemical structure as those found naturally in people. The use of these hormones has been marketed as a safe way to treat the symptoms of menopause. It’s important to realize that although there are few studies comparing “bioidentical” or “natural” hormones to synthetic versions of hormones, there is no evidence that they are safer or more effective. The use of these bioidentical hormones should be assumed to have the same health risks as any other type of hormone therapy.
Estrogen therapy (ET): The use of estrogen alone after menopause does not appear to increase the risk of developing breast cancer significantly, if at all. But when used long term (for more than 10 years), ET has been found to increase the risk of ovarian and breast cancer in some studies.
At this time there appear to be few strong reasons to use post-menopausal hormone therapy (either combined HT or ET), other than possibly for the short-term relief of menopausal symptoms. Along with the increased risk of breast cancer, combined HT also appears to increase the risk of heart disease, blood clots, and strokes. It does lower the risk of colorectal cancer and osteoporosis, but this must be weighed against the possible harms, especially since there are other effective ways to prevent and treat osteoporosis. Although ET does not seem to increase breast cancer risk, it does increase the risk of stroke.
The decision to use HT should be made by a woman and her doctor after weighing the possible risks and benefits (including the severity of her menopausal symptoms), and considering her other risk factors for heart disease, breast cancer, and osteoporosis. If a woman and her doctor decide to try HT for symptoms of menopause, it’s usually best to use it at the lowest dose that works for her and for as short a time as possible.
Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, especially if it is continued for 1½ to 2 years. But this has been a difficult area to study, especially in countries such as the United States, where breastfeeding for this long is uncommon.
The explanation for this possible effect may be that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s total number of lifetime menstrual cycles (the same as starting menstrual periods at a later age or going through early menopause).
Consumption of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Compared with non-drinkers, women who consume 1 alcoholic drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who don’t drink alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption is also known to increase the risk of developing several other cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than 1 alcoholic drink a day.
Being overweight or obese after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Before menopause your ovaries produce most of your estrogen, and fat tissue produces a small amount of estrogen. After menopause (when the ovaries stop making estrogen), most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your chance of getting breast cancer by raising estrogen levels. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher blood insulin levels. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.
The connection between weight and breast cancer risk is complex, however. For example, risk appears to be increased for women who gained weight as an adult but may not be increased among those who have been overweight since childhood. Also, excess fat in the waist area may affect risk more than the same amount of fat in the hips and thighs. Researchers believe that fat cells in various parts of the body have subtle differences that may explain this.
The American Cancer Society recommends you maintain a healthy weight throughout your life by balancing your food intake with physical activity and avoiding excessive weight gain.
Evidence is growing that physical activity in the form of exercise reduces breast cancer risk. The main question is how much exercise is needed. In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative, as little as 1¼ to 2½ hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more.
To reduce your risk of breast cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), preferably spread throughout the week.