Breast cancer: 10 things you didn't know

Jane Murphy / 26 September 2016

Think you're clued-up about breast cancer? Don't be so sure. Read on for some surprising facts, and find out how to protect yourself.

1. Obesity is the largest preventable risk factor

Surprised? You're not alone. More than two-thirds of people in the UK are unaware of the link between obesity and breast cancer, according to a recent report by Cancer Research UK.

'That the cancer risks of being overweight are still not widely understood is of real concern,' says Eluned Hughes, Breast Cancer Now's head of public health and information.

 'With simple daily lifestyle steps, including eating more healthily, being more active and limiting your alcohol intake, you can reduce your own risk of breast cancer, and everyone needs to know this.'

Breast cancer: cutting your risk

2. Risk increases with age

One in three breast cancers are diagnosed in the over-70s. And yet two thirds of women in the same age group believe women of all ages are equally likely to be diagnosed with the disease, according to research by Public Health England. The lesson? Don't assume you're past it.

What’s your risk of breast cancer?

3. It doesn't always start with a lump

Any change in breast texture, size or shape can also be a symptom, as can a skin rash, underarm pain or even a bout of dry skin. But don't panic! Everyone's breasts are different. The important thing is to get to know what's normal for you, and report any changes to your GP. Find out more from Coppafeel.

7 less obvious breast cancer symptoms

4. Most breast lumps are nothing to worry about

Now, we did tell you not to panic, didn't we? The vast majority of breast lumps – around 90 per cent, in fact – aren't cancerous, but it's always a good idea to get them checked out.

Breast lumps: cyst, cancer or something else?

5. Just one glass increases your risk

Regularly drinking even small amounts of alcohol can heighten your chances of developing breast cancer. A 2012 research review found that having just one drink a day – a 175ml glass of wine or the equivalent – can increase risk by five per cent.  

'It's important women are aware that unfortunately there is no "safe" alcohol limit when it comes to increasing one's cancer risk,' warns Eluned Hughes. Want to cut down? For support and advice, visit Drinkaware.

Are you drinking more than you think?

6. The jury's still out on HRT

The effect of combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on increasing risk is likely to have been underestimated by previous studies, according to recent research published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Women taking combined HRT are 2.7 times more likely to develop breast cancer, with risk increasing with longer use.

'On balance, some women will feel HRT to be a necessity,' says Breast Cancer Now's chief executive Baroness Delyth Morgan. 'But in order to minimise risk during treatment, it's recommended that the lowest effective dose is used for the shortest possible time. The good news is that the increased risk of breast cancer begins to fall once you stop using HRT.' Concerned? Discuss your options with your GP.

How safe is HRT?

7. Stress probably isn't a risk factor

Daily stresses and adverse life events are unlikely to increase breast cancer risk, say scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research. 'Stressful life events are common and many women will have experienced them in the run-up to being diagnosed with breast cancer, but our results suggest that those stressful events are unlikely to be the cause of the disease,' says study leader Dr Minouk Schoemaker.

Stress: what it does to your body

8. Most breast cancers aren't hereditary

Of all women who develop breast cancer, up to 15 per cent have a significant family history of the disease and approximately one in 20 has inherited a faulty gene, according to Breast Cancer Now. Remember, breast cancer is fairly common: lifetime risk for women is one in eight. So if two women in the same family have been diagnosed with the disease, it doesn't necessarily signify a genetic link.

Genetics and breast cancer

9. Not enough of us are being screened

Early detection is key to successful treatment and survival – and yet more than a third of women ignore their first screening invitation, according to recent statistics by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

Think you may be due for a mammogram? Find out more on the NHS screening programme -

Breast cancer symptoms you didn’t know

10. The future's looking brighter

More than four in five women diagnosed with breast cancer will still be alive a decade later, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. Raised awareness, early detection and improved treatments mean survival rates are improving all the time. But there's still a lot of work to be done. To find out how you can help raise awareness, contact Breast Cancer Now.

How far are we from curing breast cancer?

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.