Being Well

Have a Family History of Breast Cancer? Here’s What You Should Know

Learn more about how a family history of breast cancer, along with other factors, can influence your chances of developing the disease.

If you’re like many women, you’ve probably heard that breast cancer can “run” in your family. A family history of breast cancer doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be diagnosed, but you may still be concerned about your risk.

According to the American Cancer Society, as many as 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. In other words, they develop from certain genetic mutations that run in families. While some types of breast cancer, however, seem to be connected to genetics, your likelihood of developing breast cancer depends on many factors.

If you’re concerned about your risk of developing breast cancer, the best thing you can do is talk with your doctor. He or she can discuss your unique family and personal medical history, as well as recommend any genetic screening tests that could be beneficial for you.

How Big of a Role Does Family Play?

Martha Thomas, a genetics counselor at UVA, says, “Doing genetic testing is actually really easy, but the information you get back can be much more complicated. It’s not always a black and white issue.” This is because there are multiple factors that play a role in breast cancer development. Family history of breast cancer is certainly important, but so are other aspects of your life, like how old you were when you had your first period and your age when you had your first child.

In looking at family history, it’s best to look beyond first-degree relatives, like your mother or sister. “We go back three generations. Knowing the size of families and the age of any previous breast cancer diagnoses in the family is really important in determining a woman’s personalized risk,” says Thomas.

Determining Your Genetic Risk

BRCA1 and 2 are probably the most well-known hereditary breast cancer genes, but there are actually a lot of genes that can put women at increased risk,” says Thomas. Fortunately, genetic screening for genes that can lead to breast cancer is a relatively simple process. You only need to provide a blood sample in order to be tested — after the blood sample is collected, it’s sent to a lab, and you’ll get the results within a few weeks.

If the results of genetic testing and your family history of breast cancer places you at higher risk, the best thing to do is speak with a physician familiar with high-risk patients. You may be referred to UVA Cancer Center’s high-risk breast cancer clinic to discuss your options for managing your risk factors.

“Sitting down with a physician and saying, ‘This is my mutation, this is my family history, this is my personal history. What makes sense?’ is an important next step after a genetic screening test,” says Thomas. By working with physicians at the high-risk clinic, you can help determine which types of risk-reduction strategies may work best for you. This could include increased surveillance, which increases the likelihood of catching breast cancer early, to risk-reduction strategies, such as a prescription for certain medications.

Your family history of breast cancer is important in determining your own risk of developing the disease, but it’s not the only factor you have to consider. Thomas cautions, “If you have a genetic mutation or strong family history of cancer in general, it’s really important to check in every couple of years to see if any official recommendations have changed … because they do!” Your doctor can use the most up-to-date screening recommendations to help keep you healthy and worry free.

The UVA Breast Care Program offers advanced diagnostic and screening options for women and men to help you prevent and treat this disease.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN