Family History and the Risk for Breast or Ovarian Cancer
But if someone in your family has had breast or ovarian cancer, your chances of getting those cancers may be higher. And if you have 2 or 3 relatives who have had these cancers, your chances may be even higher.
If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, it may be important to you to find out how high your risk is so that you can decide whether to do something to lower that risk, like take medicine or have surgery.
The best way to find out about your risk is to talk to your doctor. But you can get some idea of how high your risk is by knowing your family history and understanding how it relates to breast and ovarian cancers.
What is a family history?
Having a family history means that you have one or more blood relatives with breast or ovarian cancer.
Some family histories are stronger than others. Here’s what determines whether your family history is strong:
In the tables below, the figures are only rough estimates from research studies. Lifetime risk means the chance that you will get these cancers sometime during your life. These numbers may not apply to you, but they can give you an idea of how high your risk may be.
See a picture that may help you understand how much having a family history can increase your risk for breast cancer.
See a picture that may help you understand how much having a family history can increase your risk for ovarian cancer.
Your doctor will ask about at least three generations of your family history and tell you how much it affects your risk. Your doctor may also send you to a genetic counselor, someone who is trained to help people understand their risks for certain diseases.
What is a BRCA gene change?
Sometimes a very strong family history is caused by a mutated gene that runs in the family.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that normally help control cell growth. But an inherited change, called a mutation, in one of these genes makes you much more likely to get breast and ovarian cancers. BRCA (say "BRAH-kuh") stands for BReast CAncer. A BRCA gene test is a blood test that can tell you and your doctor whether you have one of these changed genes.
Having a BRCA gene change is pretty rare. Most women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer don't have a BRCA gene change.
Before you have a gene test, you will need to see a genetic counselor. Counseling will help you make an informed decision about whether to have a BRCA gene test. It is often covered by insurance, but check with your insurance company to find out for sure.
Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to have one of these BRCA genes. Some experts recommend genetic counseling for Ashkenazi women if they have one or both of the following:4
If you are not of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, some experts recommend genetic counseling if you have one or more of the following:4
In the table below, the figures are only rough estimates from research studies. Lifetime risk means the chance that you will get this cancer sometime during your life. These numbers may not apply to you, but they can give you an idea of how high your risk may be.
In the table above, the range for BRCA gene carriers is very broad. That's because different studies have had different results. More study is needed to get a better idea of just how high the risk is for these women.
Pictures may help you understand these numbers better. See the following pictures to get a better idea of how much a BRCA gene change increases your risk for:
If you are worried that you may have a BRCA gene change, talk to your doctor.
How can you find out what effect your family history has on your risk?
The best way to find out is to see your doctor. Your doctor will ask you for as much information about your relatives as you can give (for example, what kind of cancer they had, if any; how old they were when they were diagnosed; and, if they have died, how old they were when they died).
People often don't have a lot of information about all of their relatives. The more you can find out, the better your doctor can help you figure out how strong your family history is.
Your doctor may send you to a genetic counselor, who can help you learn how high your cancer risk is. After counseling, you may decide to have a BRCA gene test.
Finding out how high your risk is can help you make important decisions about your health. Some women decide to take extra steps to prevent breast and ovarian cancer, such as having checkups more often, taking anti-cancer medicine, or having surgery to remove the breasts, the ovaries, or both.
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