Breast cancer risk factors you can’t change

A woman’s risk of breast cancer comes from factors she can’t control, and factors she has some influence over. A greater understanding of the risk factors for developing breast cancer will be key to preventing, and ultimately eradicating the disease.

Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol intake and lack of exercise are known to increase the risk of breast cancer and can be modified to help reduce the chances of getting the disease. However, while other major risk factors – such as being a woman, getting older, and having a family history of the disease – are essentially unchangeable, they do tell us important information about what might cause breast cancer, and provide clues as to who is most at risk and how we might prevent it occurring.

Breast cancer researchers are working towards saving lives through more effective treatments and earlier detection, and many are also seeking ways to better understand who is at risk and how breast cancer can be prevented in the first place.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation funds research into breast cancer risk and prevention, such as:

  • Better knowledge of the impact of lifestyle on breast cancer risk
  • Understanding of risk in order to develop more effective treatments in future
  • Gaining a better understanding of the genetic and nongenetic factors that affect breast cancer, to enable better monitoring, detection and treatment of those at high risk of developing the disease

Determining risk

Professor Kelly-Anne Phillips

There are many ways that women can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer and it’s important that these options are known and available across the entire population, regardless of where they live or their socio-economic situation. Professor Kelly-Anne Phillips has developed a web-based tool called iPrevent which is designed to help all Australian women to know their risk so they can take the right steps. NBCF has provided additional fellowship funding to complete the testing and roll out of iPrevent so that women and their doctors can work together to try to prevent breast cancer.


Pregnancy protection 

Dr Kara Britt is studying the cellular and functional changes associated with childbearing to understand how the protective effect of having children works and if it can be replicated. Her research may suggest ways to prevent breast cancer in the future.

Dense breasts 

Having dense breast tissue is a risk factor for breast cancer, although the reasons are not yet fully known. Research to identify the reasons why women of the same age have variations in their breast tissue density will lead to a better understanding of the causes of breast cancer and how to prevent it. Researchers, including Dr Jennifer Stone, are also looking at more effective ways to detect breast cancer in women with dense breasts.


Less than five per cent of breast cancer cases can be attributed to an inherited faulty gene, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, and others that have not yet been identified. Being able to identify women and men with an inherited risk provides them with the information required to make choices that would help them avoid facing a breast cancer diagnosis. Researchers such as Professor Ian Campbell are investigating the family genetics of breast cancer to identify inherited genes beyond BRCA so more Australians have that choice.