by Angela Epstein

Running the risk of cancer

Women across the globe continue to fight breast cancer

Which women run the highest risk of cancer
Women across the globe continue to fight breast cancer
For many women breast cancer is a real fear and the odds are even greater when diet and family history are taken into account. Knowing their risk factors means women can take preventative action to help reduce their chance of developing the disease.

We asked Tony Howell, professor of medical oncology, and Lester Barr, a breast cancer consultant, both from the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Centre in Manchester, to assess a group of women for their risk of developing the disease in their lifetimes.

It’s highly likely that breast cancer is caused by a defective gene — but unlike the one carried by Angelina Jolie, it’s a gene that hasn’t yet been identified.

There are a number of other genes that double the risk of breast cancer and about 70 more that can increase risk to a lesser degree. However, the technology is not yet available to test for these.

Most hereditary breast cancers occur under the age of 50.

There are a number of options one could consider: having a pre-emptive mastectomy, which will reduce the risk to about five percent, taking Tamoxifen, which blocks the production of oestrogen and can reduce risk by half, or having regular mammograms — these miss about one in ten cancers but they’re our most effective tool.

RISK: 1 in 3 

Finding a fatty lump on your breast after losing weight is quite common and does not impose any kind of risk. Excess weight can cause lumps of fat to become inflamed and harden, and these remain even if that weight is lost.

Studies have found risk of breast cancer increases with removal of even benign lumps.

It’s possible surgery can make breast tissue more prone to cancerous changes. Or that the presence of a lump suggests that the cells may be unstable, which is then exacerbated by surgery.

Unfortunately, breastfeeding won’t give you any added benefit since it is only protective against breast cancer if you have your children before the age of 30. It’s the number of uninterrupted periods a woman has before this age that increases risk due to prolonged exposure to the hormone oestrogen.

The increased breast cancer risk is the same for women who don’t start a family until they are 30 as for women who remain childless.

The risk begins to decrease once a woman stops taking the pill— ten years after stopping the risk of developing breast cancer is no higher than in women who haven’t taken the Pill.

Moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes four times a week can reduce lifetime risk by 20 per cent. It lowers the production of hormones such as insulin and leptin — higher levels increase risk of breast cancer.

If a lump becomes harder, larger or there are other changes she should see her consultant. It should be looked at every six months.


RISK: 1 in 9

A combination of exercise and good diet have been proven to reduce risk of breast cancer. Around 70 per cent of breast cancers are fuelled by the hormone.


RISK: 1 in 11 

Breast cysts usually develop because of hormonal changes through the menstrual cycle.

It’s also possible to get a ‘breast mouse’ or fibroadenoma — a benign breast lump that seems to move within the breast tissue. They are very common, especially in young women.

Though multiple cysts pose a slight increase in risk because it suggests the breasts are responsive to hormonal changes, it’s not enough to be significant.

Research shows any operation which involves cutting the breast can raise risk by about 30 percent.

Research shows exposure at a young age is more significant than in older women in terms of breast cancer risk.


RISK: 1 in 7

Weight is a big issue with breast cancer. 

New data has found women who gain weight in their 20s and remain overweight until their 50s have an increased risk of breast cancer compared with their peers. It’s thought this is because weight increases production of hormones such as insulin, which are implicated in the disease.

Women are advised to maintain the weight they were at 20. There’s good evidence losing weight lowers risk. 

RISK: 1 in 8

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Issue 16


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