Breast cancer: prevention and control

Breast cancer risk factors

Several risk factors for breast cancer have been well documented. However, for the majority of women presenting with breast cancer it is not possible to identify specific risk factors (IARC, 2008; Lacey et al., 2009).

A familial history of breast cancer increases the risk by a factor of two or three. Some mutations, particularly in BRCA1, BRCA2 and p53 result in a very high risk for breast cancer. However, these mutations are rare and account for a small portion of the total breast cancer burden.

Reproductive factors associated with prolonged exposure to endogenous estrogens, such as early menarche, late menopause, late age at first childbirth are among the most important risk factors for breast cancer. Exogenous hormones also exert a higher risk for breast cancer. Oral contraceptive and hormone replacement therapy users are at higher risk than non-users. Breastfeeding has a protective effect (IARC, 2008, Lacey et al., 2009).

The contribution of various modifiable risk factors, excluding reproductive factors, to the overall breast cancer burden has been calculated by Danaei et al. (Danaei et al., 2005). They conclude that 21% of all breast cancer deaths worldwide are attributable to alcohol use, overweight and obesity, and physical inactivity. This proportion was higher in high-income countries (27%), and the most important contributor was overweight and obesity. In low- and middle-income countries, the proportion of breast cancers attributable to these risk factors was 18%, and physical inactivity was the most important determinant (10%).

The differences in breast cancer incidence between developed and developing countries can partly be explained by dietary effects combined with later first childbirth, lower parity, and shorter breastfeeding (Peto, 2001). The increasing adoption of western life-style in low- and middle-income countries is an important determinant in the increase of breast cancer incidence in these countries.