Statistics and General Facts

For more statistics and general facts, see our Factsheets

What books do you recommend to learn more about breast cancer?

For a list of great books, check out BCA’s Recommended Booklist. For newly diagnosed women we recommend Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book for its detailed and easy-to-read description of all aspects of breast cancer. For those interested in environmental links to cancer, we recommend the well-researched and beautifully-written Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber. Patient No More by Sharon Batt offers an incisive analysis of the politics of breast cancer and the grassroots activism that has challenged the Cancer Industry and is one of the most important breast cancer texts in print.

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How have breast cancer rates changed over the years?

After climbing steadily in the United States and other industrialized countries since the 1940s, amounting to more than one million cases per year worldwide, breast cancer rates have started to level off, although it is unclear whether this is a true trend.

During the past half-century, the lifetime risk of breast cancer more than tripled in the United States. In the 1940s, a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer was one in 22. In 2004, it was one in seven. In 2007, it decreased to one in eight.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in American women ages 34 to 44. Once a disease almost exclusively of postmenopausal women, breast cancer now strikes women in their 20s and 30s. Of the estimated 241,000 women in the United States diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, approximately 24,000 were women under 45.

In 2007, approximately 40,500 women are expected to die from breast cancer.

More American women have died of breast cancer in the last 20 years than the number of Americans killed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.

An estimated 2,000 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, accounting for about one percent of all breast cancers. It's estimated that approximately 450 men will die from breast cancer in 2007.

A significant body of evidence indicates that exposure to radiation and the ever-increasing production of synthetic chemicals are contributing to the increased incidence of breast cancer. Considerable resources are spent encouraging women to make changes in their personal lives that might reduce their risk of breast cancer. But many factors that contribute to the disease lie far beyond an individual's control, and can only be addressed by government policy and private sector changes. Breast cancer is not just a personal tragedy; it is a public health crisis that requires political will to change the status quo. Fundamental changes are needed in both the public and private sectors regarding the production, use and disposal of chemicals known and suspected to increase the risk of breast cancer.

Aren’t breast cancer rates increasing simply because more women are being screened?

Mammography screening alone cannot explain the steady rise in breast cancer incidence. If breast cancer rates were stable or declining, then you would expect incidence rates to have sharply increased after screening was first widely publicized and practiced but then gradually to have leveled off and declined because those with breast cancer discovered “earlier” don’t show up in later counts. But the rates have continued to rise.

According to the most recent SEER statistics collected by the government, the estimated annual percent change (EAPC) for breast cancer is 2.1 (meaning incidence rates have been increasing at an average of 2.1% each year. This number is age-adjusted to account for more women getting older.) Moreover, between 1950 and 1998 the EAPC is 1.3. So even before widespread screening was introduced, breast caner rates were rising. And in 1974, when then-First Lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer there was a huge increase in the number of women getting mammograms. The incidence rates, as expected, saw a sharp rise that then declined to near 1974 levels, but then they began to rise again and have risen steadily since. So there’s more to the high rates than mere screening.

A significant body of evidence indicates that exposure to radiation and the ever-increasing production of synthetic chemicals are contributing to the increased incidence of breast cancer. Considerable resources are spent encouraging women to make changes in their personal lives that might reduce their risk of breast cancer. But many factors that contribute to the disease lie far beyond an individual's personal control and can only be addressed by government policy and private sector changes. Breast cancer is not just a personal tragedy; it is a public health crisis that requires political will to change the status quo. Fundamental changes are needed in both the public and private sectors regarding the production, use and disposal of chemicals known and suspected to increase the risk of breast cancer.

What does the “1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer” statistic mean?

The 1 in 8 statistic is a lifetime risk calculation, based on estimated cancer incidence given a life expectancy of 85. It means that if all women lived to age 85, 1 out of every 8 women would develop breast cancer some time in her lifetime. This does not mean that in any group of eight women one will develop breast cancer.

Many different factors are involved in calculating an individual’s risk. Age, for example: A woman’s risk for developing breast cancer by age 39 is 1 in 210, and the risk between the ages of 40 and 59 is 1 in 25. The 1 in 8 lifetime risk statistic does not take into account personal risk factors. So while it is useful when talking about general populations, it is not an accurate measure of any individual woman’s risk for breast cancer.

Why then is the statistic used so much? It is still a reliable measure of the prominence of the disease in large populations such as ours. The lifetime risk statistic is also a useful calculation for comparisons and trends. For instance, in the 1960s breast cancer risk was 1 in 20. We can see clearly that the risk of breast cancer has tripled in the last half-century.

A significant body of evidence indicates that exposure to radiation and the ever-increasing production of synthetic chemicals are contributing to the increased incidence of breast cancer. Considerable resources are spent encouraging women to make changes in their personal lives that might reduce their risk of breast cancer. But many factors that contribute to the disease lie far beyond an individual's personal control and can only be addressed by government policy and private sector changes. Breast cancer is not just a personal tragedy; it is a public health crisis that requires political will to change the status quo. Fundamental changes are needed in both the public and private sectors regarding the production, use and disposal of chemicals known and suspected to increase the risk of breast cancer.

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What is the risk of breast cancer for young women?

Although breast cancer is often thought of as an older woman’s disease, young women can and do get breast cancer. Approximately 10,000 women under the age of 40 were estimated to be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and close to 1,500 died of it. Young women should not overestimate their risk, however, as they are the minority of breast cancer patients. A woman’s chance of getting breast cancer before age 39 is 1 in 229. Her risk increases with age; from ages 40 to 59 her risk is 1 in 24, from 60 to 79 it is 1 in 14, and from birth to death it is 1 in 8.

There is no evidence to support routine mammography screening of women younger than 40 years of age. Because the breast tissue of pre-menopausal women tends to be denser than that of post-menopausal women, mammograms of younger women can be more difficult to read, increasing the rate of false positive and false negative results. Younger women should get to know their bodies by doing regular breast self exams and should have any unusual lumps checked out by a doctor. They should also make sure their doctors give them thorough clinical breast exams when they go in for annual check-ups.

If you have concerns about a lump, don’t let your doctor dismiss you by telling you you’re ‘too young’ to get breast cancer. Although the younger you are, the less your risk of getting breast cancer, your concerns should be taken seriously. Read BCA’s article ‘Beware of Dr. Watchit and Dr. Followit’ for more information on how to deal with dismissive doctors.

For more information on the concerns and issues faced by young women with breast cancer, visit the Young Survival Coalition.

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How many men get breast cancer?

Many of us are aware that men can and do get breast cancer, but few of us know any more than that. That’s not surprising, given that even doctors and cancer researchers admit that they have a lot to learn. In 2007, an estimated 2,030 men are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer, 1% of all breast cancer cases, and approximately 450 will die from the disease.

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How do breast cancer incidence and mortality rates compare among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.?

Breast Cancer incidence and mortality vary by race and ethnicity in the U.S. For purposes of this FAQ, we will be referring to the racial and ethnic categories as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. These broad racial and ethnic categories have several limitations, but they are the categories that are widely used in compiling breast cancer statistics, so they are the categories we will use here.

In the U.S., incidence is highest among non-Hispanic white women. African American women have significantly lower rates of breast cancer than do white women. Latina women have lower rates than African American women (though breast cancer rates of Latina women are rising), Asian American/Pacific Islander women have lower rates than Latina women, and the racial/ethnic category with the lowest rates is Native American women.

However, incidence patterns are different among younger women (women under 50). The incidence rates for young women are higher for African American women than for white women.

Decreases in breast cancer incidence and mortality rates over time have not benefited women of color as much as they have benefited white women. Breast cancer incidence rates in white women decreased from 2001-2004, but the rates in women of other racial and ethnic groups have decreased only slightly or in some cases not at all. The same is true for breast cancer mortality. Although mortality rates have been steadily decreasing since 1990, this decline has not been realized equally among all racial and ethnic groups.

Most notable of all the disparities is the persistently higher breast cancer mortality rates suffered by African American women compared to white women, despite a lower incidence rate. This disparity has widened over the last twenty years.

Part of BCA's new strategic plan includes working to ensure that systemic injustices are addressed as some of the root causes of breast cancer inequities. Stay tuned for more on the strategic plan in the next e-alert.

To learn more about differences in breast cancer rates, visit:

American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer Facts and Figures

California Breast Cancer Research Program: Identifying Gaps in Breast Cancer Research

BCA Source: Struggling to Survive: African American Women and Breast Cancer