But statistics also show that nine out of ten of us are willing to make lifestyle changes to reduce our risk of the disease.
The truth is, much research is still needed to understand breast cancer - and its causes - fully. But there are certain steps every woman can take to help reduce their chances of developing the illness.
Here are our top ten tips to help prevent breast cancer.
Be 'breast aware':
More than 90 per cent of breast tumours are detected by women themselves, so keeping an eye on changes to your breasts should be an important part of every woman's health care. Advice on exactly when and how women should examine their breasts has changed in recent years.
Medics no longer advise women to examine their breasts every month in a regimented way as they believe that this may cause them to become over-anxious. Instead, women are now advised to become 'breast aware'. This means getting to know what your breasts look like in front of a mirror, and feel like - perhaps in the shower or lying down - at different times of the month so that if an abnormal change occurs you can spot them at once.
Breast-feed your babies:
Some studies have shown a link between breast-feeding and a lower risk of developing breast cancer, although there is still no clear consensus on this. Researchers who believe there is a link claim the
younger the mother and the longer she breast-feeds her baby the better. The claims are based on the theory that breast cancer is related to the hormone oestrogen. Many researchers believe the more our bodies are exposed to this hormone the greater the risk of the disease. Breast-feeding temporarily reduces a woman's oestrogen levels. It is also thought that breast-feeding causes the breast to go through certain physical changes that protect them against cancer-causing chemicals.
If you find a lump, go to see your doctor as soon as possible
Research shows that many, many women delay going to see a doctor if they find a lump in their breast because they are afraid they have cancer. This is the worst thing you can do. Firstly, nine out of ten breast lumps are not cancer, so visiting your doctor will usually help you put your mind at rest. Secondly, if your lump is cancerous, prompt treatment could save your life.
Find out if you have a family history of breast cancer:
Much research is still needed before scientists fully understand all the causes of breast cancer. But one thing is known for sure: genetic breast cancer accounts for at least ten per cent of all cases of the illness. It is thought that one in five hundred people carry a faulty gene which can make them susceptible to the disease.
Those most likely to have inherited breast cancer are those with many relatives diagnosed with the disease at a young age, women who have had a close relative with breast cancer in both breasts and women whose family has a history of both breast and ovarian cancer. If your mother had breast cancer, however, it does not necessarily mean that you will develop the disease.
If you are concerned that the disease may run in your family visit your GP. If he or she believes there is cause for concern you may be referred for a special test which can identify if you carry the faulty gene linked to the illness.
Watch your alcohol intake:
Alcohol has been linked to breast cancer in a number of studies. Researchers believe this may be due to the fact that alcohol increases oestrogen levels. But experts disagree about how much alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.
Some say that even moderate amounts are unsafe, while others claim that drinking up to 14 units a week - more than two bottles of wine - might even improve your chances of avoiding the disease. Until more research is done, doctors generally claim that drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week (14 small glasses of wine) over a long period of time can damage your overall health.
Watch your weight:
Obesity appears to increase the risk of breast cancer. Researchers found that women who gained 44 to 55 pounds after the age of 18 had 40 per cent higher risk of getting breast cancer than women who fluctuated by only four or five pounds throughout their adult life. Animal studies have shown that reducing calorie intake by 30 per cent can lead to a 80 - 90 per cent reduction in the risk of breast tumours.
Some studies suggest that exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer. This is because research indicates that the less you exercise, the higher the levels of oestrogen in the body. Half an hour of exercise three times a week is good for all round health, may decrease your risk of breast cancer and will also help you maintain your weight.
Eat less fat:
There is much debate about the link between breast cancer and diet. But there is evidence that certain western lifestyle factors - particularly our high fat diet - appear to increase the risk of the disease. For example, scientists found that although Japanese women have a much lower risk of developing breast cancer than women in the West, when they moved to the USA the women's risk was almost equal within two generations. Try to eat no more than 70g of fat a day.
If you are over 50 go for regular breast screening:
Although much more research is needed to determine the causes of breast cancer one of the well-established key risk factors is age. Eighty per cent of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50. All women in Britain are entitled to free breast screening - an X ray that can determine lumps in the breast - between the ages of 50 and 64. The scheme is set to be extended to women up to the age of 70 within the next two years.
The Government has published figures that showed the scheme is saving many hundreds of lives. In fact, by 2004 there will be 20 per cent fewer cancer-related deaths among older women because of the screening. Currently women of the target age will receive a letter inviting them to be screened every three years.
Learn to relax:
It's well documented that stress can cause all kinds of health problems. But a British survey in 1995 concluded that women who reported severe stress in the previous five years were 50 per cent more likely to have breast cancer. Although there is still some debate over these findings reducing your stress levels will undoubtedly be beneficial for your overall health.