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Stopping cancer before it starts

Breast cancer - at a glance

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK: 1 in 8 women develop the disease at some stage in their lifetime.

Breast cancer is rare in men, with around 400 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK, compared to around 50,000 new cases in women.

Scientists estimate that about 2 in 5 breast cancer cases in the UK – over 20,000 new cases a year – could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and not drinking alcohol.

Only 3 in every 100 breast cancer cases are hereditary, and many of the factors that increase our chances of developing the disease are linked to our lifestyle.

What is breast cancer?

Breasts are made up of fatty connective tissue, milk-producing glands and ducts that carry milk from the glands to the nipple. Breast tissue naturally develops in response to hormones at different stages of life – for example, during puberty, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Breast cancers almost always develop in the glands or ducts that produce milk and carry it to the nipple. Cancers develop as a result of damaged cells, which can grow uncontrollably to form a lump or thickening called a tumour.

Many different factors contribute to the development of breast cancer, and hormones (particularly oestrogen) often play an important role. This means that life events that affect our hormone levels, such as having children, can alter our cancer risk.

There are also important risk factors that we can influence, such as our everyday diet and lifestyle choices.

Who is most at risk of breast cancer?

As with all cancers, the risk of developing breast cancer depends on a number of factors and varies from person to person. The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Lifestyle risk factors

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Not breastfeeding when you have a baby

Other risk factors

  • Age – your risk increases as you get older
  • Starting your periods at a younger age (before age 12)
  • Late menopause (over age 55)
  • Not having children, or having a late first pregnancy (over the age of 30)
  • Family history – particularly a close relative who is diagnosed before the age of 50. If you are concerned about this, we recommend you speak to your GP
  • Taking HRT – risk continues to increase slightly the longer you take HRT but decreases gradually once you stop
  • Taking the oral contraceptive pill – risk increases slightly when you take the pill, but slowly returns to normal after you stop

If any of these apply to you, it does not mean that you will develop breast cancer – it just means that your risk may be higher than average.

Reducing your risk of breast cancer

Our Continuous Update Project (CUP) report found that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer:

There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases breast cancer risk. To reduce your risk as much as possible, we recommend not drinking alcohol at all. If you do choose to drink, try to stick to no more than 1 drink a day and aim to have a few alcohol-free days a week. Try our alcohol calorie calculator.

Being a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to help protect against breast cancer. Try our Body Mass Index calculator and waist measurement guide to check if you are a healthy weight and shape.

Being physically active can help reduce your cancer risk, but this doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. Every type of activity counts, and the more you do the better. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity every day. Try our exercise calorie calculator for more ideas.

Breastfeeding is good for your baby’s health and it can also help protect you against breast cancer. It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to six months.

Being breast aware

Breast awareness means being familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts so that you are able to spot any irregular changes early on. Download our breast awareness shower card to find out more.

What about screening?

The good news is that most breast cancer cases can be successfully treated if they are detected early – that's why it is important to attend breast screening whenever you are invited. Visit NHS Choices to find out about breast cancer screening, symptoms and treatment.

Read more about how you can lower your cancer risk.

Breast cancer

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Page last reviewed: October 2013
Page next due for review: October 2015
The information on this page is based on the findings of our Expert Report and is covered by the Information Standard.

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