Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is estimated that one in eight women will be diagnosed. And, while it is rare, men can also develop breast cancer. The good news is that catching it in the early stages through screening, when treatment is most effective, can save lives.

Who is at risk?

Even if you feel healthy, just being a woman puts you at risk of breast cancer. Men can also have breast cancer, but it is far less common than in women. And, as you get older, your risk of breast cancer increases. Most invasive breast cancers (those that spread from where they start) are found in women age 55 and older. Most breast cancers happen to men between the ages 60 and 70.

Breast cancer risk is also higher among women whose close blood relatives have had the disease. Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) with breast cancer almost doubles a woman’s risk. If your brother or father has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk can be higher as well. About five to ten percent of women with breast cancer have a family member with the disease. This means that most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history.

Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most well-known to be linked to breast cancer risk. These genes help prevent cancer by keeping cells from growing abnormally. Cells with defects in these genes can grow abnormally, which can lead to cancer. Genetic testing of these genes is suggested if individuals have either a personal or family history that suggests the possible presence of a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.

Other breast cancer risk factors for women include having dense breast tissue, late or no pregnancy and using birth control or hormone therapy with estrogen and progestin after menopause. Studies show that drinking alcohol and carrying extra weight can also increase risk. Many women without any risk factors, however, are commonly diagnosed.

Who should get screened?

Regular breast cancer screening is suggested for all women over the age of 40. If you are at a higher risk of breast cancer, then you may need to be screened earlier. And, even if you feel healthy it is important to get screened—many women diagnosed with breast cancer have no symptoms. Warning signs can include a lump found in the breast or armpit, pain or swelling and changes in breast size. Breast cancer screening is only recommended for men with a high risk due to family history, but, if a lump is found, then it is a good idea for men consult their doctor.

What screening options are available?

The most commonly performed breast cancer screening tests are clinical breast exams and mammograms. A clinical breast exam is done by a healthcare provider during a regular medical check-up. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms can find breast cancer in its early stages. Woman with an average risk for breast cancer (including no family history) have the option to start screening with a mammogram at age 40. It is recommended by the American Cancer Society that women age 45 to 54 get a mammogram every year. Women 55 and older can switch to having a mammogram every other year or continue having one done each year.

What can I do to lower my risk?

There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But, healthy habits such as staying active, eating a healthy diet and limiting alcohol consumption can help limit risk. And, be sure to get screened regularly as recommended by your doctor—finding breast cancer early may save your life.

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