About breast cancer

What should people know about breast cancer?

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women in New York State. Each year in New York, about 16,700 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 2,500 women die from the disease. It is estimated that one in eight women will develop breast cancer during her life.

Men also get breast cancer, but it is very rare. About 160 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in New York State.

Who gets breast cancer?

All women can get breast cancer. However, breast cancer is more common among older women. The risk for getting breast cancer increases with age. More than three-quarters of women who get breast cancer are over the age of 50. White women are more likely to get breast cancer than Black women, but, once they have the disease, Black women are more likely to die from it. Asian and Hispanic women are less likely to get breast cancer than White women or Black women. Also, women of higher socioeconomic status (those whose family incomes are above average) are more likely to get breast cancer. Scientists believe this may be related to having their first child at an older age, fewer pregnancies, diet and possible other characteristics shared by women in higher income groups.

What factors increase risk for developing breast cancer?

At this time, the causes of breast cancer are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Age. As women get older, their risk of developing breast cancer increases.
  • Family history. Women whose close relatives (parents, brothers/sisters, children) have had breast cancer (especially at an early age) are more likely to get breast cancer.
  • Genetics. Women with certain changes in breast cancer related genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are at higher risk for getting breast cancer. About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are believed to be due to genetic factors.
  • Personal history. Women who have had cancer in one breast are more likely to develop it in the other breast or in remaining breast tissue. Women who have a history of certain types of benign (non-cancerous) tumors and cysts in their breast are more likely to develop breast cancer. Also women with dense breast tissue are at increased risk for the disease.
  • Hormonal factors. Women who start their menstrual periods at a young age, start menopause at a late age, have their first child later in life, or have not had full-term pregnancies may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Not breastfeeding. Not breastfeeding increases a woman's chance of developing breast cancer.
  • Hormone use. Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone combined) increases the risk of developing breast cancer. However, women who have not used hormone replacement therapy in the past 10 years may not be at increased risk.
  • Personal behaviors. Some personal behaviors have been shown to increase risk for getting breast cancer. These include excessive alcohol use and not getting enough exercise. Also, being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer after menopause.
  • Ionizing Radiation. Exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation to the chest area early in life, such as radiation therapy for Hodgkin lymphoma, increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

What other risk factors for breast cancer are scientists studying?

Scientists are studying other possible personal risk factors for breast cancer including diet, smoking, exposure to second hand smoke, current or recent use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills), use of the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) prior to the early 1970s to prevent miscarriage, exposure to estrogens and progestins in some personal care products and night-shift employment.

A number of chemicals are being studied as possible risk factors for breast cancer. These include various by-products of industrial processing, production and combustion, pesticides, metals, and solvents.

Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of breast cancer.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting breast cancer?

To help reduce the risk of getting breast cancer:

  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • Discuss the use of hormone replacement therapy with your health care provider.
  • If possible, breastfeed your baby. Studies have shown that breastfeeding for longer periods of time lowers the risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation.

Regular check-ups and screening tests can find breast cancer at an earlier stage, when treatment works best. The most important action women can take is to have routine breast cancer screenings. For more information on breast cancer screening, call the Cancer Services Program at 1-866-442-CANCER (2262) or visit the website at www.health.ny.gov/diseases/cancer/services/.

Breast Cancer Screening and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many people to miss their mammograms. If you are due for a mammogram, do not wait. Call your health care provider to schedule your appointment as soon as you can. If you are having any symptoms of breast cancer, call your health care provider right away. Getting a mammogram regularly is the best way to find breast cancer early, when it may be easier to treat.

Health care providers are taking steps so that important health visits can happen safely. All staff and patients must wear masks and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before going in the office. Equipment, exam rooms and dressing rooms are cleaned after each patient. Other safety steps may include socially distanced waiting rooms, on-line check in, and more time added between appointments.

Breast Cancer Screening and COVID-19 Vaccine

Talk to your health care provider about whether to schedule your screening mammogram before the first dose of any COVID-19 vaccine or 4-6 weeks after your final dose of vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines may cause swelling of lymph nodes in the armpit on the side of the body that the shot was given. This is normal and will go away over time. But swollen lymph nodes under the arm can also be a symptom of breast cancer and may show up on a mammogram. This may lead to more tests.

Do not delay your mammogram if you are having any problems with your breasts or have breast cancer symptoms. See your health care provider as soon as possible about your concerns. Together you will decide when is the right time for your mammogram.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meats, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer and other diseases.
  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended screenings for other types of cancer.

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