Breast Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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Lifestyle-related risk factors for breast cancer

Drinking alcohol

Drinking alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Excessive alcohol consumption is also known to increase the risk of developing several other cancers.

Being overweight or obese

Being overweight or obese after menopause increases breast cancer risk. Before menopause your ovaries make most of your estrogen, and fat tissue makes a small amount. After menopause (when the ovaries stop making estrogen), most of a woman’s estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue after menopause can increase your chance of getting breast cancer by raising estrogen levels. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher blood insulin levels. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to some cancers, including breast cancer.

The connection between weight and breast cancer risk is complex. For instance, risk appears to be increased for women who gained weight as an adult but may not be increased in those who have been overweight since childhood. Also, excess fat in the waist area may affect risk more than the same amount of fat in the hips and thighs. Researchers believe that fat cells in various parts of the body have subtle differences that may explain this.

Physical activity

Evidence is growing that physical activity in the form of exercise reduces breast cancer risk. The main question is how much exercise is needed. In one study from the Women’s Health Initiative, as little as 1¼ to 2½ hours per week of brisk walking reduced a woman’s risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more.

Having children

Women who have not had children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk overall. Having many pregnancies and becoming pregnant at an early age reduces breast cancer risk overall. Still, the effect of pregnancy is different for different types of breast cancer.

Birth control

Oral contraceptives: Studies have found that women using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. This risk seems to go back to normal over time once the pills are stopped. Women who stopped using oral contraceptives more than 10 years ago don’t appear to have any increased breast cancer risk.

Depot-medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA; Depo-Provera): This is an injectable form of progesterone that is given once every 3 months as birth control. A few studies have looked at the effect of DMPA on breast cancer risk. Women currently using DMPA seem to have an increase in risk, but the risk doesn’t seem to be increased if this drug was used more than 5 years ago.

Hormone therapy after menopause

Hormone therapy with estrogen (often combined with progesterone) has been used for many years to help relieve symptoms of menopause and to help prevent osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). This treatment goes by many names, such as post-menopausal hormone therapy (PHT), hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and menopausal hormone therapy (MHT).

There are 2 main types of hormone therapy:

  • For women who still have a uterus (womb), doctors generally prescribe estrogen and progesterone (known as combined hormone therapy or HT). Progesterone is needed because estrogen alone can increase the risk of cancer of the uterus.
  • For women who’ve had a hysterectomy (those who no longer have a uterus), estrogen alone can be prescribed. This is commonly known as estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) or just estrogen therapy (ET).

Combined hormone therapy (HT): Use of combined hormone therapy increases the risk of getting breast cancer. It may also increase the chances of dying from breast cancer.

Estrogen therapy (ET): The use of estrogen alone after menopause does not appear to increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

For more information about this topic, see Menopausal Hormone Therapy and Cancer Risk.


Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, especially if it’s done for at least a year. But this has been hard to study, especially in countries like the United States, where breastfeeding for this long is uncommon.

The reason for this possible effect may be that breastfeeding reduces a woman’s total number of lifetime menstrual cycles (the same as starting menstrual periods at a later age or going through early menopause).

Last Medical Review: 10/09/2015
Last Revised: 10/20/2015