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Breast cancer – risk factors and lifestyle choices

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

Breast-cancer2-blogBreast cancer related to work

The exact causes of an individual’s breast cancer are generally difficult to uncover as there are so many factors are involved, and the effect of exposure to carcinogens at work may take years to take root in the body.

Nevertheless, research backed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) relating to 2004 has attempted to put figures on the number of deaths and reports of cancer in workers which are directly related to their work.

The HSE research highlights asbestos and breathing in someone else’s tobacco smoke as the two most significant workplace carcinogens and estimates that, in 2004, a total of 8,010 people died of work-related cancer and 13,598 were registered with the disease. In the same year, potentially work-related breast cancer comprised 4.6% of all cancers for women and it caused 555 deaths, according to the report.

Some research highlights particular types of work as being associated with a high risk of developing breast cancer, such as working as a flight attendant or doing long-term shift work (2004 HSE research). And the Breast Cancer Fund has suggested that nursing, teaching, or being a librarian and lawyer, radiologist or lab technician are occupations statistically linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. However, more research is needed before a clear proven link can be confirmed.

Risk factors for breast cancer

Some cancer experts prefer to focus on the risk factors where there is more research evidence for an association with breast cancer, for example:

  • Age: 8 out of 10 people diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50, and half are women over 65.
  • Previous breast conditions.
  • A family history of breast cancer.
  • Radiotherapy to the chest at an early age.
  • Obesity: Women who are overweight or obese after menopause have a 30-60 percent higher breast cancer risk than those who are lean.
  • Hormonal factors: Exposure to the hormones oestrogen and progesterone can increase risk:
    • Taking the contraceptive pill.
    • Not having children, or having them after the age of 30.
    • Not breastfeeding.
    • Starting periods early (younger than 12) or late menopause.
    • Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Some figures

  • Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in the UK. Cancer Research UK estimates that there are 54,000 new cases of breast cancer recorded each year (of which around 340 are in men).
  • One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime and the incidence of breast cancer will increase by 2% over the next 20 years. More than 11,000 people will die from breast cancer each year but treatments are improving along with survival rates – some 78% of women will live more than 10 years after treatment. Most thought-provoking, perhaps, is the statistic that 27% of breast cancers may be preventable.

Lifestyle choices

Some lifestyle choices are believed to affect risk levels for cancer and the following steps are recommended in order to reduce the risk, such as:

  • not smoking: in the UK, one in five cancers are linked to smoking and about nine out of 10 people who develop lung cancer are smokers;
  • maintaining a healthy weight: being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer after the menopause;
  • healthy eating: eating plenty of fibre, such as wholegrain bran, pasta, beans and oatmeal is known to reduce risk, as is eating five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. It is also recommended to limit consumption of salt, red meat and processed meat;
  • being active: doing two and a half hours of physical activity each week is recommended;
  • limiting alcohol intake: about four in 100 cancers are linked to alcohol. The more you drink the higher your risk. Specialists recommend that women shouldn’t drink more than 14 units each week, and that this intake should be spread over a number of days with alcohol-free days each week;
  • wearing sunscreen: always using sunscreen during sun exposure.

All women should check their breasts regularly for lumps or abnormalities, see the doctor immediately with any worries, and take up any invitations to have a mammogram.

Advice for employees

People who are diagnosed with breast cancer are protected against discrimination by the Equality Act 2010 so employers should be informed of the diagnosis so that they can understand the condition and make changes to support employees through their treatment and recovery. Some people are able to work through their treatment whilst others will need time off.

If you need advice on how to tell your employer, or what rights you have during and after treatment, call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). If you are in Scotland, call 0800 019 2211 or visit

Advice for employers

Cancer can hit a workforce indiscriminately and may well affect the most valuable members of staff. Employers need to be aware that the Equality Act 2010 protects employees with cancer from the moment they have been diagnosed.

Recent research has found that returning to employment after treatment has many positive benefits in the rehabilitation of breast cancer patients, and the initial conversation with the employer and the subsequent support and ongoing contact can be crucial. Employers need to be available to talk in confidence and be willing to offer the necessary work adaptations, flexibility and support to help their employee through the treatment and back to work.

If you have an employee with breast cancer and need advice on your responsibilities as an employer, call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). If you are in Scotland, call 0800 019 2211 or visit


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