Smoking tobacco appears to increase the risk of breast cancer, with the greater the amount smoked and the earlier in life that smoking began, the higher the risk. In those who are long-term smokers, the risk is increased 35% to 50%. A lack of physical activity has been linked to about 10% of cases. Sitting regularly for prolonged periods is associated with higher mortality from breast cancer. The risk is not negated by regular exercise, though it is lowered.
There is an association between use of hormonal birth control and the development of premenopausal breast cancer, but whether oral contraceptives use may actually cause premenopausal breast cancer is a matter of debate. If there is indeed a link, the absolute effect is small. Additionally, it is not clear if the association exists with newer hormonal birth controls. In those with mutations in the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 or BRCA2, or who have a family history of breast cancer, use of modern oral contraceptives does not appear to affect the risk of breast cancer.
The association between breast feeding and breast cancer has not been clearly determined; some studies have found support for an association while others have not. In the 1980s, the abortion–breast cancer hypothesis posited that induced abortion increased the risk of developing breast cancer. This hypothesis was the subject of extensive scientific inquiry, which concluded that neither miscarriages nor abortions are associated with a heightened risk for breast cancer.
A number of dietary factors have been linked to the risk for breast cancer. Dietary factors which may increase risk include a high fat diet, high alcohol intake, and obesity-related high cholesterol levels. Dietary iodine deficiency may also play a role. Evidence for fiber is unclear. A 2015 review found that studies trying to link fiber intake with breast cancer produced mixed results. In 2016 a tentative association between low fiber intake during adolescence and breast cancer was observed.
Other risk factors include radiation and shift-work. A number of chemicals have also been linked, including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, organic solvents Although the radiation from mammography is a low dose, it is estimated that yearly screening from 40 to 80 years of age will cause approximately 225 cases of fatal breast cancer per million women screened.
Some genetic susceptibility may play a minor role in most cases. Overall, however, genetics is believed to be the primary cause of 5–10% of all cases. Women whose mother was diagnosed before 50 have an increased risk of 1.7 and those whose mother was diagnosed at age 50 or after has an increased risk of 1.4. In those with zero, one or two affected relatives, the risk of breast cancer before the age of 80 is 7.8%, 13.3%, and 21.1% with a subsequent mortality from the disease of 2.3%, 4.2%, and 7.6% respectively. In those with a first degree relative with the disease the risk of breast cancer between the age of 40 and 50 is double that of the general population.
In less than 5% of cases, genetics plays a more significant role by causing a hereditary breast–ovarian cancer syndrome. This includes those who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation. These mutations account for up to 90% of the total genetic influence with a risk of breast cancer of 60–80% in those affected. Other significant mutations include p53 (Li–Fraumeni syndrome), PTEN (Cowden syndrome), and STK11 (Peutz–Jeghers syndrome), CHEK2, ATM, BRIP1, and PALB2. In 2012, researchers said that there are four genetically distinct types of the breast cancer and that in each type, hallmark genetic changes lead to many cancers.
Breast changes like atypical ductal hyperplasia and lobular carcinoma in situ, found in benign breast conditions such as fibrocystic breast changes, are correlated with an increased breast cancer risk. Diabetes mellitus might also increase the risk of breast cancer.