Breast Cancer: What Does “High Risk” Mean?

Breast Cancer: What Does “High Risk” Mean?

One in eight women will face breast cancer during her lifetime. Despite the reality of this statistic, there’s a lot women can do to lower their chances of getting breast cancer—and beat the odds if they are diagnosed.

Still, what can you do if you have a family history of breast cancer or feel you’re otherwise at high risk? The first step is empowering yourself with the right knowledge. To help you learn more, Dr. Barb DePree of Holland Hospital Women's Specialty Care offers answers to some key questions. (Dr. DePree is an OB/GYN who is a Certified Menopause Practitioner and also holds special certification in Cancer Risk Assessment.)

Q: What does it mean to be at high risk for breast cancer?
A: First and foremost, don’t panic. Having several risk factors for breast cancer doesn’t mean you will get the disease. It means your chances of being diagnosed are higher than individuals who have fewer risk factors, and you should discuss this with your health care provider.

Q: What puts women at higher risk for breast cancer?
A: While only 10 percent of breast cancer occurs due to hereditary factors, a strong family history of the disease does raise your risk. Other factors known to increase risk include:

  • Age (growing older increases your risk)
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Past abnormal breast biopsies
  • Dense breast tissue
  • Radiation exposure
  • Early age at first period
  • Later age of menopause
  • No pregnancy or older age at first pregnancy (over 35)
  • Postmenopausal hormone treatment

Q: What can women do to decrease their risk of breast cancer?
A: Adopting a healthy lifestyle is a great stride toward prevention. That means:

  • Eating well. Enjoy lots of fruits and veggies; limit meats and whole-milk dairy products; choose high-fiber, plant-based foods; opt for healthy fats (e.g., cold-water fish, olive oil, avocados, flaxseed); and avoid processed foods, and refined grains, flours and sugars.
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation (no more than one drink per day).
  • Exercising at least 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week. (At least four hours of physical activity each week could lower your breast cancer risk by more than 50 percent!)
  • Quitting smoking. Smoking is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women. It can also increase complications from breast cancer treatment.
  • Talking to your health care provider about what you can do to boost your vitamin D level. (Many people are vitamin D deficient.)
  • Maintaining an ideal body weight. Obesity puts women at greater risk for breast cancer (and many other cancers, too).
  • Weighing the benefits and risks of continuing to undergo hormone replacement therapy with your doctor.
  • Keeping up on screening. Check your breasts, have a professional breast examination yearly and receive an annual mammogram after age 40.

Q: What can women do if they know they’re at high risk of developing breast cancer?
A: Holland Hospital’s High Risk Breast Clinic can go over additional prevention strategies with you, as well as provide expert evaluation and monitoring to help reduce your breast cancer risk or diagnose the disease at its earliest (and most treatable) stages.

  • Barb DePree, MD

    Barb DePree, MD

    Recipient of North American Menopause Society’s 2013 Certified Menopause Practitioner of the Year for her exceptional contributions to menopause care, Barb DePree, MD, specializes in menopausal medicine, hormone replacement therapy and sexual health. With nearly 25 years in women’s health, Dr. Barb has comfortably answered all the uncomfortable questions of sexual health and the changes that occur as we age.

    After completing her Master's in Medical Management, Dr. Barb launched her own website,, that connects with people across the country and provides additional advice and products for patients. Dr. DePree obtained her Clinical Cancer Genomics Community of Practice Certification through the City of Hope. In addition to being a provider at Holland Hospital Women's Specialty Care, Dr. DePree is also part of the Holland Hospital Breast Care team, seeing patients at Holland Hospital's High Risk Breast Clinic. 


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    Barb DePree, MD

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