Why did I get breast cancer?


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The first step to healing is empowerment through education. A breast cancer diagnosis can be scary and confusing, and it raises a lot of questions. Our goal is to make sure that patients have access to resources to make the best decisions for their health. Of all the questions we are asked after a diagnosis, the most common is, “Why did I get it?”

All diagnoses are different, but they all have one thing in common: There is nothing a patient did or didn’t do or should have or shouldn’t have done to avoid a diagnosis. There are certainly risk factors involved, which I will discuss later, but we can’t ever point to one exact reason for a positive diagnosis.

Risk factors you can’t control

At the most basic level, women usually have breast cancer for two reasons: 1) They are a woman and 2) They are aging. These reasons might seem obvious, but it’s as simple as that.

Notice I didn’t mention family history of breast cancer. While family history is critical to understanding a patient’s susceptibility to breast cancer, it does not rank as one of the most important risk factors. Eighty-five percent of my patients had no known family history of breast cancer.

We also can look at a handful of other factors that might slightly increase breast cancer risk but are really out of our hands. These include: 

  • Menstruating before age 11
  • Undergoing hormone replacement therapy, especially a combination of estrogen and progesterone therapy
  • Not having children or breastfeeding before age 30
  • Starting menopause later in life

None of these factors will automatically cause breast cancer, but we can consider them clues about a patient’s specific cancer diagnosis.

What can you do?

Eat right and exercise to stay in control of your overall health. Monitoring your lifestyle choices now can help your body age stronger and healthier and can help you avoid breast cancer. Mainly, this is because an unhealthy lifestyle can lead to obesity.

More and more studies are pointing to obesity’s role in breast cancer. As we gain weight, normal hormone levels are altered, which can cause a list of health problems, including breast cancer. So, keep your weight in check as a way to have power over your health and perhaps, in so doing, avoid a breast cancer diagnosis.

In all cases, I can’t stress enough the benefit of breast cancer screening. This includes regular mammograms and breast self-exams. We’re good at treating breast cancer, but we need to catch it early for the best outcomes.