Breast cancer continues to be a major challenge for public health, since it is the most common cancer of women in the Western world, and its prevalence is still increasing. In order to achieve better results in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer it is crucial to identify the mechanisms behind its initiation, i.e. the changes and deviations that have occurred in the mammary gland growth. It has long been known that a woman’s reproductive history is the strongest breast cancer risk factor if genetic background and age are excluded. The reproductive hormones, and the timing of events leading to changes in these hormones, and consequently, in the mammary gland, are the most important players. However, it has become obvious that dietary components may also contribute to breast cancer risk through their effects on the mammary gland. The past few years have added important information to our knowledge of the mechanisms behind breast cancer initiation at the level of target cells (mammary stem cells) and gene expression (genetic ‘fingerprint’ associated with persistent pregnancy-induced protection against breast cancer), as well as of the effects of certain dietary factors (steroid action modulators). These results and their links to breast cancer initiation and progression will be discussed.

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