The Genetic Connection of Breast Cancer

mom and daughterUnderstanding your risk of getting breast cancer can help you better monitor your health. This article is the third of a three-part series to help you learn more about your risks.

No one in may family has had cancer. Does that mean I won’t get the disease?

While certain breast cancers have a genetic connection, most do not. In fact, in about 80 percent of breast cancers cases, there is no family history of cancer.

If my mother or a female relative has had cancer, am I more likely to get the disease?

Watching your mother, grandmother, sister, aunt or cousin face breast cancer can be devastating. Additionally, your concern for them may raise your own fears of getting cancer. However, only about 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary.

The chances that there is a genetic link are higher if your family member was younger when the diagnosis was made. Your risk depends on how closely you are related. A child is at greater risk than a cousin, for instance.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend genetic testing to determine whether you carry a BRCA gene mutation that has been associated with breast cancer. Having this gene does not mean that you will get breast cancer; it is only an indication that you have a greater risk of getting the disease. Women with this gene mutation have up to an 80 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and a 15 to 45 percent risk of ovarian cancer.

If one of these genes has been identified, it is possible that other members of the family also carry the gene. It is natural to think about the daughters and granddaughters of the women who have the gene, but it can also be passed along through their sons.

What should I know about my family’s medical history?

Because there are genetic connections with certain illnesses, it is helpful to know about the medical issues of close family members. This includes how old they were when diagnosed and what was the response to treatment.

What should I do to monitor my breast health?

Whether or not there is breast cancer in your family, you should have an annual mammogram starting at age 40, according to the American Cancer Society. This is the best tool we have for detecting breast cancer early, when it is most treatable. You should also have a clinical breast exam annually after age 40 and do monthly breast self-exams. If there is a history of cancer in your family, you can talk with your doctor about whether additional monitoring is recommended.

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