Family History and Your Risk for Breast Cancer

01 Sep 2014 in

Genetics and family health history play an intricate, if not yet fully understood, role in breast cancer risk.

Do you have a family history of breast cancer? Research has shown women with a family history of breast cancer have a higher risk for diagnosis than women with no family history of breast cancer.

It is important to take the time to learn about the medical and cancer incidence history in your family. This can help you to make informed decisions about cancer screening, including mammography. Empowering yourself with history about your family’s history with cancer is a proactive strategy to plan for a long, healthy life.

Family History of Breast Cancer – Documentation

Cancer is a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Although research is still ongoing to better understand these risk factors, we do know the genes a woman inherits from her parents can significantly impact the possibility of a cancer diagnosis (see our genetic factors page for more information).

  • Breast cancer risks doubles if there is a single first-degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • It triples if there are two first-degree relatives, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Risk for developing breast cancer more than tripled if a biological sister was diagnosed before the age of 50, according to one study published December 1998 in the International Journal of Cancer.

Research has also shown that breast cancer risk increases with a history of breast cancer in second-degree relatives, such as a father’s sister,and family histories of prostate cancer and ovarian cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.  Contrary to older beliefs breast cancer risk comes equally from your father and mother. Fifty percent of your genes come from your father, so particularly if he had no sisters you have to look further back in the family to see if there were any breast cancer events

The first step to better understand if your genes increase the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis is to compile your family history of cancer. I recommend talking to your relatives to identify:

  • Family members’ past – as far back as three generations – and present medical diagnoses.
  • Family members’ ages at time of diagnoses.
  • Family members’ causes of death and ages at death.

Once your elderly relatives are gone you may not get this vital information! With things like Facebook and social media it is easier to re-kindle with family members that you have lost touch with. After you have documented this family medical history talk to your physician. Your doctor can provide with medical advice to better clarify your risk of a cancer diagnosis and recommend whether genetic testing is appropriate.

How do my genes impact the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis?

Genetic material inherited from our parents inhabits every cell in the human body. This genetic information directs cells to perform tasks necessary for our bodies to function and influences physical traits. Some of the genes function to prevent normal cells from becoming tumors.

When damaged genetic information is inherited from parents, this can increase risk for certain diseases and health conditions, such as cancer. Genetic mutations can account for up to 10% of all breast cancers.

Two high-profile genetic mutations that can drastically increase risk occur in breast cancer genes 1 (BRCA1) and 2 (BRCA2). Lifetime risk for developing breast cancer can rise as high 60 percent in women with genetic mutations to both BRCA1 and BRCA2. Mutations to BRCA1 and BRCA2 are more prevalent in some ethnic groups such as women of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and effect between. The incidence of the BRCA mutation is1 in 400 and 1 in 800 women in the United States, in women of Jewish heritage it is 1 in 40 to 1 in 80.

However, more recently there are other mutations that also may significantly increase the risk of breast cancer. Please read our breast cancer genetic risk factors page for more information about these.

What Should You Do If You Have a Family History of Breast Cancer?

The American Cancer Society recommends some high-risk women begin annual screening mammography as early as the age of 20 (women who test positive for genetic mutations). They also recommend supplemental breast cancer screening, such as breast MRI, for those identified as high risk.

Preventative measures, such as hormone therapy or surgery, can be taken to reduce the risk of a breast cancer diagnosis. However, it should be stressed that these decisions should not be taken lightly and women should consult with their physician in order to make informed decisions about their health. Many women both overestimate and underestimate their risk factors.

To learn more about the importance of breast cancer awareness please read a recent article I wrote. Additionally, I am always motivated and excited to bring this message to men and women. Please feel free to contact me via LinkedIn if you know of a breast cancer awareness event in Orange County that needs a speaker!


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