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Breast and Ovarian Cancer
  Am I at Risk?

By Kari Danziger, MS, CGC
Originally reviewed by Beth Crawford, MS, CGC, September 5, 2000

Updated by Scott Cole, January 13, 2011

 


All women have some risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. But having a family history of breast and ovarian cancer can mean a significantly increased risk for you. So the first step to understanding your risk is by analyzing your family's medical history. Such an analysis will take into account how many people in your family had breast or ovarian cancer and at what age the cancer developed. Once you know your risk level, you and your doctor can determine a screening schedule that is appropriate for you.

 
 
 

Some Questions to Ask

Although DNA tests are now available for some of the genetic mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancer, your family's medical history still provides one of the best predictors of your own level of risk — and the best starting point for determining whether you have inherited a predisposition to either type of cancer. As you begin your research, ask yourself the following questions. If the answer to any of these questions is "yes" then you may be at increased risk for cancer:

  • Have any of your female relatives developed breast cancer before they reached menopause, or before the age of 50?
  • Has anyone in your family been diagnosed with ovarian cancer?
  • Has anyone in your family been diagnosed with both breast and ovarian cancer, or with multiple cancers?
  • Are there clusters, or patterns, of certain types of cancer among close relatives? (In addition to breast and ovarian cancer, other types of cancer may suggest the presence of a hereditary cancer syndrome).

Why Understanding Your Risk Is Important

Having a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer puts you at high risk for these diseases, and having a mutation in one of the genes associated with these diseases (BRCA1 and BRCA2) is the strongest risk factor you can have.

There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk for both breast and ovarian cancer, particularly if you are in the high-risk group your risk.

If there was nothing you could do to halt or prevent cancer, understanding your risk for the disease might not be important. In fact, such knowledge might only add to your anxiety. However, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk for both breast and ovarian cancer, particularly if you are in the high-risk group. This includes more intensive screening, as well as surgical or chemical prevention.

Also, because many women overestimate their risk — especially for breast cancer — for them, learning that their family's cancer history does not put them at a significantly increased risk for either disease can come as a huge relief.

How Can I Tell If I Am at Risk?

If someone from your family — specifically, a biological relative — has been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, there is a chance you may have inherited a gene from one of your parents that puts you at increased risk for the disease as well. In that case, your best course of action is to speak with your doctor and/or a genetic counselor.

References

Brekelmans C.T.M. (2003) Risk factors and risk reduction of breast and ovarian cancer. Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 15:63-68.

Garber J. (1999). A 40-year-old woman with a strong family history of breast cancer [clinical conference]. JAMA. 282(20):1953-60.

Hoskins K.F. et al. (1995). Assessment and counseling for women with a family history of breast cancer. A guide for clinicians. JAMA. 273(7):577-85.

 

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