Breast Cancer Causes: Understanding the Risk Factors & Preventions

By Dr. Surender Kumar Dabas in Breast Cancer Programme

Apr 05 , 2024 | 8 min read

Breast cancer, a condition widely prevalent among women, involves the abnormal growth of cells in the breast tissue that can potentially spread to other parts of the body. Recognising the causes of this disease is a crucial step towards its prevention and early detection. In this article, we will look into the various factors contributing to breast cancer incidence among women.

The primary causes of breast cancer include hereditary factors, hormonal factors, lifestyle choices, and certain environmental exposures. By comprehending these triggers, it becomes possible to adopt preventive measures and mitigate risk. Moreover, an understanding of these causes allows for better conversations with doctors about personal risk factors and potential screening procedures.

We aim to educate you about 'breast cancer causes' so that you can take charge of your health with informed decisions. Join us as we navigate through this critical topic and impart valuable insights about breast cancer and its causative factors.

What Causes Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer causes remain largely unknown, but certain factors, such as ageing, gender, and family history, could increase the risk. Let's delve deeper into these aspects in the following subsections.

1. Common Factors

The following is a list of common factors that contribute to the causes of breast cancer:

  • Radiation Exposure: Extended radiation exposure, particularly in the chest region, can escalate the risk of developing breast cancer. Those who have undergone radiation treatments for other cancers like Hodgkin's disease are especially at risk.
  • Obesity: An unhealthy body weight often leads to hormonal imbalance, in turn increasing the chance of developing breast cancer, particularly after menopause. Studies show that post-menopausal women who are overweight or obese may have a higher risk of breast cancer due to elevated levels of certain hormones associated with body fat.
  • Menopause at an Older Age: Women who experience menopause after the age of 55 are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who go through this change earlier. This could be attributed to longer lifetime exposure to hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone.
  • Period at a Younger Age: Women who start their periods before the age of 12 have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. The early commencement of menstruation signifies a longer duration of hormonal exposure.
  • Drinking Alcohol: Regular consumption of alcohol can lead to an increased risk of breast cancer by altering the hormone levels in the body. Even moderate drinking can elevate risk levels, with higher consumption leading to greater risks.

However, keep in mind, these factors do not guarantee that one will develop breast cancer but understanding them can aid in early detection and prevention strategies. It is crucial to discuss any concerns with your breast doctor promptly.

2. Genetic Factors

When we talk about breast cancer causes, genetics plays a crucial role. Understanding how it influences the risk of breast cancer is essential in mitigating the risk and taking proactive measures.

The blueprint of our bodies lies in our genes. Sometimes, alterations or mutations in these genes can increase the risk of diseases like breast cancer. Two such genes are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes generally help in protecting us against cancer but when mutated, they can increase the risk.

  • BRCA1 Gene: A mutation in this gene significantly increases the chance of developing breast cancer at some point in life.
  • BRCA2 Gene: Similarly, changes in this gene also elevate the risk of breast cancer.

Besides these genes, family history influences susceptibility to breast cancer. If close relatives have experienced this disease, your own risk may be higher due to shared genetics. It's important to know your family's health history and discuss it with your doctor to assess your risks better.

3. Hormonal Factors

Hormones play a crucial role in the normal functioning of our body. However, they can also contribute to the development of breast cancer. A higher exposure to oestrogen and progesterone over time has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

  • The EstrogenBreast Cancer Connection

Estrogen, a hormone predominantly found in females, is essential for sexual and reproductive development. However, it could also contribute to the onset of breast cancer. Studies show that women with longer menstrual cycles or those who start their periods at a young age have more oestrogen exposure, which may increase their risk.

  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and Breast Cancer Risk: Many women resort to HRT to manage post-menopausal symptoms, unaware that it could potentially increase their risk of developing breast cancer. The risk depends on the type and duration of therapy.

Thus, hormonal factors indeed play a significant role in contributing to the causes of breast cancer. Recognising these can help us take preventative measures early on, contributing to better health outcomes for all women.

4. Lifestyle and Environmental Factors

When it comes to understanding the causes of breast cancer, lifestyle and environmental factors also play a significant role. The following points will help shed light on these contributing factors:

  • Dietary Factors and Their Association with Breast Cancer

The food we consume plays a crucial part in our overall health. Specifically, certain dietary factors can increase the risk of breast cancer. For instance, regular consumption of processed foods high in trans fats, salt, and sugars; processed meats; and alcohol can raise the chances of developing this disease. On the other hand, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains in our diet may serve as a protective shield against the disease.

  • The Role of Physical Activity in Reducing or Increasing Risk

Physical activity is another key aspect. Regular exercise helps regulate hormones that are associated with breast cancer. An active lifestyle can thus contribute to reducing the risk. Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle without adequate physical activity can increase one's susceptibility.

  • Environmental Pollutants and Their Potential Impact

Let's not overlook the role of environmental pollutants in triggering breast cancer. Exposure to certain harmful chemicals found in the environment could increase the risk of breast cancer. These include industrial chemicals, pesticides, plastic additives like bisphenol A (BPA), and certain heavy metals. Living near industrial areas or using plastic containers (particularly for hot food/drink), which may release harmful chemicals, are potential risk factors.

Remember, acknowledging and modifying these lifestyle and environmental factors where possible can act as preventive measures against breast cancer. It's never too early or too late to make healthy changes!

Prevention Tips

Understanding and implementing prevention tips can significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer. Here we present practical tips you can adopt to help prevent this disease and boost your overall health.

  • Regular Check-ups: Regular visits to your doctor, preferably once a year, are crucial. They can help catch breast cancer early when treatment is most effective.
  • Clinical Self-Examinations: Besides a medical check-up, perform monthly self-breast examinations. Look for changes in breast texture, skin inflammation, or unusual discharge. If you notice anything unusual, contact your doctor immediately.
  • Screenings: Breast cancer screenings such as mammograms and ultrasound scans are beneficial. Women above 40 years should consider regular yearly mammograms as part of their health routine.
  • Healthy Lifestyle: Nutritious food, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting alcohol intake are preventive measures that can lower the risk of breast cancer.
  • Breastfeeding: It has been observed that breastfeeding reduces your chances of developing this disease drastically.

However, it is important to note that these preventive measures do not guarantee that you will not get breast cancer, but they significantly lower the risk and help detect it at an early stage if it does occur.


Breast cancer is a major health concern, especially in India, but understanding its causes can help guide prevention strategies. The risk factors include uncontrollable elements like genetics and age, as well as lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity, and alcohol consumption. By focusing on what we can control — eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake, and undergoing regular screenings — we can significantly reduce the chances of developing this deadly disease. Remember, awareness and early detection are key to fighting breast cancer successfully.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who is at risk of developing breast cancer?

While breast cancer can affect anyone, women are more likely to be diagnosed with this disease. Especially those aged over 50, with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and those who have never given birth or had their first child after age 30 are more prone to developing breast cancer. It is, however, important to note that breast cancer causes can be multifaceted and unique to each individual.

2. What is the role of genetics in breast cancer risk?

Certain genetic mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2 significantly increase the risk of developing breast cancer. However, not every woman who carries these genes will necessarily develop the disease.

3. Does breastfeeding reduce the risk of breast cancer?

Yes! Numerous studies show that breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer.

4. What role does diet play in breast cancer prevention?

A healthy diet can play a vital role in prevention. Consuming antioxidant-rich foods, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.

5. What are the different types of breast cancer?

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of breast cancer: invasive and non-invasive (or in situ). These are further classified into several sub-types based on where the cancer starts in the breast and how far it has spread.

6. How is breast cancer staged?

Staging is done based on the size of the tumour, whether it’s invasive or non-invasive, involvement of lymph nodes, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

7. What treatment options are available for breast cancer?

Treatment of breast cancer depends on the stage of the disease and includes options like surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy.

8. Is breast cancer preventable?

While one cannot eliminate the risk, certain lifestyle choices like maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active, limiting alcohol intake, and breastfeeding can significantly reduce the risk.

9. How often should women undergo mammograms?

Annual mammograms are recommended for women aged 40 and beyond. Women over 55 may continue yearly screening or switch to every two years.

10. What are the early signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

The early signs and symptoms of breast cancer include a new lump in the breast or underarm, thickening or swelling of a part of the breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, redness or flaky skin in the nipple area, or nipple discharge other than breast milk.