Harvard Women's Health Watch

Risk factors for breast cancer

Not all women have the same risk for developing breast cancer over a lifetime. Certain factors increase a woman's risk, and some have a bigger impact on risk than others. However, having several risk factors doesn't mean you'll inevitably develop breast cancer. Likewise, having few risk factors doesn't mean that you'll never develop it.

Many risk factors, such as age and gender, are not within our control. Others, especially those related to personal behaviors, can be modified.

It's important to know about risk factors because they can help identify women who might benefit from certain preventive strategies. A woman should work with her clinician to determine her personal risk for breast cancer and plan screenings, office visits, and preventive care accordingly. Online resources that can help in determining risk include the Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool (www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool) and Harvard School of Public Health's "Disease Risk Index" (www.diseaseriskindex.harvard.edu).

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