Epidemiological study has identified certain risk factors that increase the possibility that a woman will get breast cancer, although not all women with breast cancer have these traits, and many women with all of these traits do not develop the disease. Risk factors include age (the incidence of breast cancer is rare in women under 35—most cases occur in women over 60); a history of breast cancer in a close blood relative; and a history of breast cancer or benign proliferative breast disease. A high cumulative exposure to female sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) appears to increase the risk of some breast cancers. Hormonally related risk factors include early menarch (before age 12), late menopause (after age 55), having no children or postponing childbirth, and obesity in women over 50.
Many other possible associations are under study, such as those relating to postmenopausal estrogen replacement, alcohol and fat consumption, lack of exercise, and exposure to pesticides and other environmental chemicals. A 2002 report on the association of estrogen replacement therapy with an increased risk of breast cancer led to a large drop in prescriptions for the drugs used in such therapy; a coincident drop in the incidence of breast cancer tumors, especially estrogen-positive tumors, which apparently could not be accounted for by other causes, strongly suggested a link between the two. Tumors in women of African descent are known to be particularly aggressive.
Like all cancers, breast cancers result from changes in the structure or function of genes that are key to the regulation of cellular growth, differentiation, or repair. Acquired changes in a number of specific genes have been associated with the disease; these are changes that occur during a person's lifetime but are not inherited or passed on. About 5% of women with breast cancer have an inherited susceptibility to the disease, and most of these women have an inherited mutation in one of two genes. In 1994 it was discovered that women who inherit a mutated BRCA1 gene have an almost 85% chance of developing breast cancer and an increased chance of developing uterine cancer. BRCA1 normally acts to prevent tumors by repairing damage to the genetic material caused by oxidation, a chemical process that in the body occurs naturally during metabolism. Defective BRCA1 genes cannot repair this damage, allowing its effects to accumulate over time. Cells with oxidative damage to the genes that control their growth can proliferate, or become cancerous. The defective gene can be inherited from either parent, but appears to cause breast cancer only in women. Young women who get breast cancer often come from families that carry a BRCA1 mutation. BRCA1 mutations account for about half of known hereditary breast cancers. Another gene, named BRCA2, has also been identified. BRCA2 mutations have been associated with both female and rare male breast cancers. The two genes may also play a role in some ovarian cancers and sporadic (nonhereditary) breast cancer cases.