Breast Cancer 101: Risks & Disparities

Breast cancer is the second leading cancer among women, next to skin cancer. Its prevalence among us and our family members is one reason top scientists and doctors spend their careers searching for new and better treatments. Still, when it comes to understanding the risk of developing breast cancer – who is more likely to be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime and which factors increase its chances – prevention and early detection are key. When we become aware of our potential vulnerabilities, we’re better armed against them.

We’ve compiled a list of resources to help shed light on the various factors associated with breast cancer. Aware of our options and empowered with knowledge, we can also support our community members who may lack the tools and information they need. This year, let’s begin with a crash course in breast cancer’s top risks, how to stay informed and what we can all do to stay healthy.

The Disease(s) Known as Breast Cancer

There are several types of breast cancer, and definitions differ depending on where in the breast tissue cancers form, whether or not the illness has spread and the progression of the disease. The variances ultimately help doctors, oncologists and medical staff form a plan of action for treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is often categorized into one of two groups: in situ, (ductal carcinoma or DCIS) breast cancer which forms inside the milk ducts of the breast and is considered precancerous, or invasive (or infiltrating) breast cancer that has spread to the surrounding breast tissue. There are other, less common forms of breast cancer that occur in specific areas of the breast tissue (and surrounding areas) that require specialized treatment as well. Each case is unique and may warrant other courses of action that target the illness in different ways. It’s also important to note that not all breast cancers appear with the same, or any, symptoms. Inflammatory breast cancer, for example, may present without the telltale lumps we often hear about and instead, patients may report warm, red or swollen breast tissue. It’s important to pay attention to our bodies, report any change to our breast tissue and get to know our breasts.  

Start Here: Understanding the Risk

While breast cancer statistics and facts may cause some anxiety, acquiring information about breast cancer can be useful. Remember, being at risk for breast cancer does not mean we will or will not develop it. And knowing potential risks to our health can inform the decisions we make in our daily habits. This list below, compiled from resources from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as this Risk Assessment Tool from the National Cancer Institute, are good places to begin. However, they shouldn’t replace a conversation with a medical professional, especially if there is a good reason for concern.

  • Age: Being over 55 increases the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis.
  • Family History and Genetic Factors: Having a first-degree relative with breast cancer or multiple family members on either side, with the disease increases the risk. Women who have inherited the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are at higher risk for developing this disease.
  • Radiation Therapy and Previous Cancers: Having received radiation therapy prior to age 30, and women who have had breast cancer previously are more likely to develop breast cancer later.
  • Reproductive History: Exposure to estrogen can impact the risk of developing breast cancer. Women who began their menstrual cycle before age 12 or started menopause after age 55, women who did not breast feed, certain types of hormone replacement therapy, all impact the risk. 
  • Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES): Women who took this reproductive drug between 1940 and 1971 may be at higher risk. 
  • Lifestyle and Diet: Being overweight, inactive or consuming tobacco and alcohol can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. 

Controlling Our Destiny: Reducing the Risk

The risk of developing breast cancer may feel beyond our control due to many factors such as family history, exposure to chemicals or just simply, poor luck. But there are scientific and medical steps we can take that are known for reducing our risk of developing breast cancer. Now that we know the basic risk factors (above), here are a few simple steps we can take that impact our health in a positive way, reducing our risk of developing life-threatening illnesses. 

  • Knowing our family history can give us a good indication – as well as our doctor – of the risk we’re facing for developing certain diseases.
  • Weighing the risk of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as taking estrogen during menopause longer than five years raises the risk of of cancer.
  • Optimizing our health by maintaining a healthy, plant-based diet, limiting alcohol and cutting out tobacco altogether. 
  • Staying active is one of the simplest known ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Practicing self-exams at home once a month (after our menstrual cycle ends) with these easy-to-follow instructions will help us become more familiar with our breasts and body. 
  • Getting regular screenings with our health professionals will keep record of any changes that take place that can go unnoticed. 

Disparities Persist and Marginalized Groups Continue to Suffer

While the survival statistics for breast cancer are improving – people are living longer and the mortality rate has dropped significantly – the numbers tell a different story for communities of color. In fact, the death rate is up to forty percent higher for black women who are diagnosed than it is for white women. This disparity is troubling, and many factors may contribute over all, making it difficult to fully understand. A lack of access to higher quality medical care, later stage diagnosis and longer intervals between patient care (among other factors) appear to play a part, according to research. Other groups, such as men and trans women, have a much lower rate of survival from breast cancer. Yet both men and trans women can and do develop breast cancer. Our marginalized groups continue to suffer unfairly when it comes to treatment, access and care. With so many advancements in medicine helping people live longer and fight the disease, more must be done to democratize breast cancer treatment for our communities.

Breast cancer impacts one in eight women every year, on average. As we learn more about the risk factors of developing the disease – and how to survive it – we end up learning more about our general health, our biology and our culture. While we can never be one-hundred percent certain whether we will face cancer (or face cancer again), our goal to fight back and live longer, healthier lives is still on track.

“Don't take your health for granted. Don't take your body for granted. Do something today that communicates to your body that you desire to care for it. Tomorrow is not promised." – Jada Pinkett Smith