What's my risk of breast cancer?

Rachel Carlyle

Breast cancer risk rises with age, but is there anything you can do to help protect yourself?

Cases of breast cancer have shot up by 8% since 1971, possibly due to better and earlier detection.

Your risk of developing the disease increases with age: from 50 to 60 it’s one in 23; up to age 70 it’s one in 15 and up to age 80 it’s one in 11.

There are other established risk factors including your height (women over 5ft 9in are more at risk), being overweight, drinking alcohol and being on HRT.

Your reproductive past is also important: if you had your first child over 30 or don’t have children at all, you are slightly more at risk. Those who breastfed for over a year (this can be three children for four months each) see their risk go down by 4 percent.

Family history can be important for most women, although not as significant as people fear. Having one relative over 50 diagnosed with breast cancer wouldn’t count. However, two close family members (mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, aunt) diagnosed under 50 or four at any age would count.

Is it preventable?

Many of the risk factors – such as age – are beyond our control. And others, such as whether we have children or whether we breastfed them, are decisions already taken.

The biggest step is to cut down on alcohol and increase vegetable intake, as the antioxidants are thought to protect against cancer.

Women aged 50-70 should attend the NHS breast screening programme when called every three years, and check their breasts regularly. Those over 70 can request to continue their screening. What are the signs?

A lump, or lumps, in the breast – although nine out of 10 lumps examined in specialist clinics are benign.

Danger signs include a change in size or shape of the breast or nipple, swelling in the armpit, dimpling of the skin and blood-stained discharge. A red, scaly, itchy rash around the nipple should be investigated urgently.

“This is often mistaken for eczema,” says cancer nurse Jean Slocombe at Cancer Research UK. “But women should be assertive with their doctor and ask to be checked, particularly if they don’t have eczema elsewhere. There’s a strong chance of an underlying cancer.”

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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.