Investigating the Causes of Breast Cancer


Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer diagnosed in American women and one of the deadliest forms of cancer.   Research has provided a solid picture of what race, age, and gender is most likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer but we still don’t have a clear picture of what makes one person get it and another one live their whole life breast cancer free.  This is because there isn’t a simple answer.  What we know right now is that there are several factors like genetics, environment, lifestyle, and psychological stress that can contribute to a higher risk for the disease, but as yet there isn’t a clear picture that says do this, don’t do that and you can prevent breast cancer.

Investigating the Causes of Breast Cancer“Last year, more than 232,000 women were told they had invasive breast cancer — in which cancer cells have spread beyond the mammary glands — and another 64,000 were diagnosed with in situ breast cancer, in which the cancer is localized to the cells lining the breast ducts.

After cancers of the skin, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, accounting for almost a third of all newly diagnosed cases. It is also among the most deadly of cancers. Each year, approximately 40,000 women die from breast cancer. Only lung cancer kills more.

Who gets breast cancer? The obvious answer is women, though men are not immune. It’s 100 times less common in males, but more than 2,300 men will be diagnosed with the disease this year — and 430 will die. The majority of breast cancer cases involve women diagnosed after age 50. The median age of diagnosis is 61. They tend to be non-Hispanic white women, though African-American women have a higher incidence rate before age 40. 

Generally speaking, a woman living in the United States has a 12.3 percent lifetime risk (1 in 8) of being diagnosed with breast cancer, that’s up from 1 in 11 during the 1970s.

A lot of factors account for the increase in risk: Longer life expectancy, changes in reproductive patterns, menopausal hormone use, the rising prevalence of obesity and better detection rates through screenings.

What actually causes breast cancer is a tougher question. For insight, I turned to Ruth Patterson, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and leader of the Cancer Prevention Program at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. Here’s what Ruth had to say:

Among breast cancer survivors, there is a consistent belief that their own cancer was caused by stress, fate, family history or environmental factors, but research paints a more nuanced and often yet-to-be-explained picture.

Stress, personality and fate: There is no scientific evidence that a negative mental attitude can cause breast cancer, but chronic perceived stress may be something else. Some studies have found a link between chronic psychological stress and breast cancer. The evidence is strong in mouse studies, but less so in humans. As for fate or destiny, that is still beyond the ability of science to measure.

Family history or genetics: A large number of women identify these factors as the cause of their cancer, but in reality, just 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers are clearly hereditary.

Environmental factors: Exposure to certain pesticides and the heavy metal cadmium are associated with increased breast cancer risk. At the moment, there is only a tenuous link between air pollution and breast cancer. Most scientists do not believe that environmental factors are a major cause of breast cancer.

Lifestyle factors: There is convincing evidence that low levels of physical activity, obesity, alcohol and cigarette smoking are risk factors for breast cancer and cancer recurrence. For example, physical inactivity is estimated to be responsible for approximately 10 percent of breast cancer mortality. Data regarding diet are conflicting, although fat intake may increase the risk of breast cancer.

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