Reducing your risk of breast cancer

Can breast cancer be prevented?

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 19,000 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 your chances of developing the disease are linked to your 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.

There are many different reasons why breast cancers develop, and hormones (particularly oestrogen) often play an important role. This means that life events that affect your hormone levels, such as having children, can alter your cancer risk.

There are also important risk factors that you can influence, such as your 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.

How can you reduce your risk of breast cancer?

These steps are based on research from our Continuous Update Project (CUP).

  • Cut down on alcohol

There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases breast cancer risk. Find out more about the link between alcohol and cancer or try our alcohol calorie calculator.

  • Stay in shape

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.

  • Be more active

Every type of activity 
counts, and the more you do the better. Try our exercise calorie calculator for more ideas.

  • If you can, breastfeed your baby

Breastfeeding is good for your baby’s health and it can also help protect you against breast cancer.

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.