Breast Cancer and Menopause
Menopause itself is not associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. However, the rates of many cancers, including breast cancer, do increase with age. In addition, some of the drugs used to manage menopausal symptoms may increase or decrease a woman's cancer risk.
What Are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?
Certain factors increase the risk of developing breast cancer. However, having many risk factors does not mean a woman will develop breast cancer, and having few risk factors does not mean she is immune from the disease.
Age is the single-most important risk factor for breast cancer. The chances of developing the disease increases with age. About 70 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are over the age of 50, and almost half are 65 and older.
Personal risk is also greater if an immediate family member has had breast cancer, particularly if it was at an early age. Also, women who have had a breast biopsy (removal of breast tissue) that shows certain types of benign disease, such as atypical hyperplasia, are more likely to get breast cancer. Other risk factors include:
- Being overweight
- Excessive alcohol use
- Having a first child after age 30
- Having cancer in one breast (may develop in other)
- Late menopause (after age 55)
- Never breastfeeding
- Never having children
- Poor nutrition
- Starting menstruation early in life (before age 10)
Does Hormone Therapy Increase a Woman’s Chances of Developing Breast Cancer?
Evidence suggests that the longer a woman is exposed to estrogen and progestin, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. Hormone therapy (HT) is given to postmenopausal women to replace the estrogen no longer produced by the ovaries. The longer a woman is on HT, the greater her chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Estrogen alone in women with hysterectomy does NOT increase risk of breast cancer.
Can I Prevent Breast Cancer?
There are steps you can take to detect the disease in its early stages and increase your chances of survival:
- Get annual mammograms starting at age 45. (Some women can wait until age 50 to begin screening mammograms and have them done every two years.)
- Have your breast examined by a health care provider at least once a year.
- Discuss chemo-prevention options like treatment with tamoxifen or raloxifene if you are at increased risk.
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
Detection of breast cancer in its early stages – hopefully before it moves outside the breast – can significantly improve the chances that treatment will be successful. The survival rate from breast cancer increases when the disease is detected and treated early.
Mammography is an important method of early detection. The purpose of a mammogram is to find abnormalities that are too small to be seen or felt. However, mammograms will not detect all breast cancers, which is why physical breast exams are important.