What a Breast Cancer Diagnosis in the Family Means for You

Finding out that someone in your family has breast cancer not only affects you emotionally, but it also makes you wonder what your chances of getting breast cancer are too. A breast cancer diagnosis has a big impact on an entire family because blood relatives share genes. Only 5-10 percent of breast cancer is due to shared genes. Still,chances are you’ve heard that abnormal BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes can raise the risk of breast cancer.

So how do you learn about your risk?

Taking time to understand your family health history and reviewing it with health professionals is the first and most important step in finding out if you’re at increased risk of breast cancer.

Red Flags for Increased Family Risk

Some factors like age increase everyone’s risk of breast cancer. But here are some red flags that people in your family might be at higher risk because of inherited genes or other family risk factors:

  • People on either your mother’s or father’s side of the family with: early age of diagnosis (before age 50), more than one family member with the same cancer, individuals with bilateral cancers or more than one primary cancer, two or more generations of the family affected
  • Cancer diagnosed in an individual if your family is of Ashkenazi Jewish decent or if the person is African American and age 35 or younger
  • A man in your family has or had breast cancer

Those red flags may or may not increase your risk of breast cancer, but they should lead you to talking to your doctor about it.

Three Steps to Learning About Your Risk

To help yourself and others in your family:

  1. Start collecting your family medical history – it’s the key to understanding risk. Here’s a resource for more information about what to ask and how to ask it. The more you know when you visit your doctor, the better.
  2. Visit your doctor. They can help review your family medical history and give you an idea about your concerns. He or she can also refer you to a genetic counselor for further investigation if needed.
  3. See a genetic counselor who can look more closely at your family history, explain cancer genes and how they interact with age and other factors, and guide decisions about genetic testing for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 or other genes.

What to Do If You Have an Increased Risk

Once you have a better handle on your risk, the genetic counselor and your doctor can help you look at lifestyle changes you can make including diet and exercise. Other changes might include:

  • More frequent breast exams
  • Starting screening mammography before age 40 (the current recommendation), and having them every year instead of every two years.
  • Different types of breast imaging, such as MRI or 3D ultrasound, might be added.
  • Some findings (BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutations) may lead to screening men in the family, too.
  • Depending on history, lifestyle, and genetic testing, there may be medications or surgical options to consider as well.

Taking Control of Your Health

About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary or genetic. The rest are sporadic – doctors don’t currently know what causes them. Even if you have a genetic mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer, it doesn’t mean you will get it.

Learning what there is to know about your risk and working with your health providers can put your mind at ease and help you tackle what can be tackled. You’ll also have a jump start on the new tests and treatments that are being discovered all the time.

Check out this story from a genetics and public health website illustrating one woman’s experience finding a lump – and learning more about her family history and risk through genetic counseling.

Meet the Author

Lori M. Haymon, MS, JD, CGC is a certified Genetic Counselor at Aurora Women's Pavilion in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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