Learn more about hereditary cancer and how our family's cancer history can provide insight into our own risk of developing the disease.
Holidays are a great time to gather your family’s cancer history. Don’t forget to ask about relatives on both mom and dad’s sides.
You might not have thought much about genes, chromosomes, or DNA since Biology 101, but a little knowledge about genes can go a long way in helping you understand your risk for hereditary cancer—and make the best decisions for your health.
Just in the last 20 years, scientists have learned that some genes, called BRCA genes, can directly affect our risk for breast and ovarian cancer. That’s why these cancers tend to run in families. It’s not all bad news, though—understanding your genetic risk can empower you to take charge of your health!
If you learn that you are at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer, you and your doctors can develop a plan to lower your risk. If you already have breast or ovarian cancer, learning that it is hereditary can also help you and your doctors choose the right care for you.
Two genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2 (for breast cancer genes 1 and 2) can play a big role in breast and ovarian cancer. Normally, these genes stop breast and ovarian cells from growing, and dividing uncontrolled. When an error occurs, or there is a mutation found, it can increase the chances of cancer developing.
We all have two copies of each gene. As long as at least one BRCA1 and one BRCA2 gene works normally, your risk for cancer won’t be raised. The two copies of each gene act as backups for each other. However, if both copies of either BRCA1 or BRCA2 are damaged, your body loses a tool for stopping cancer cells from growing.
Some people are not born with normal BRCA genes—they inherit a mutation (or genetic damage) in one of these genes. Since they don’t have backup protection, any damage to the normal BRCA gene can lead to cancer.
Women with a BRCA mutation face a 60–87% lifetime risk for breast cancer and a 20–54% lifetime risk for ovarian cancer—much higher than the general population.
Your family and personal medical history holds the key to understanding your risk for breast or ovarian cancer. See the risk factors below, or use our Risk Assessment Tool* to better understand your cancer risks. If your history does suggest an increased risk, you might consider seeing a genetic counselor to determine whether you are a candidate for genetic testing.
Find out which relatives—on both your mother’s and father’s sides—have had cancer, which types, and how old they were when diagnosed. Sometimes these conversations are tough, but remember, it’s important to gather as much information as you can. Additionally, any of the following events in your family history could be a sign of hereditary cancer:
A relative with:
Two relatives with:
Three relatives with:
Your personal cancer history also affects your risk. Any of these events in your personal history could be a sign of hereditary breast or ovarian cancer:
Learning that your family or personal history might suggest hereditary cancer can be scary. But, it also gives you an opportunity to evaluate your options and take control of your health. Use it as a call to action! Talk to your doctor or a genetic counselor so together you can come up with a proactive strategy to manage your risk.
If your personal or family history suggests a risk of hereditary cancer, you might consider genetic testing.
A genetic counselor or other doctor can help you decide if genetic testing is the right choice for you.
Genetic counselors can also help you with insurance for testing and talk to you about the emotional concerns of being high risk—including stress, relationship strains, and worries about your family’s risks.
If you decide against genetic testing, you can still help your family by banking your DNA through a simple blood draw. Your relatives can then test your DNA at a later date, empowering them to get the best information about their own risks.
*The results of this test are not medical advice but merely suggestions for further investigation of your genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer.The materials on this website are not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or to replace the services of a medical professional. You should not rely on the information posted on this website as a substitute for consultations with qualified health care professionals who are familiar with individual medical conditions and needs. By clicking on this link, you agree that you will hold harmless Bright Pink and its officers, directors, employees, and volunteers for all claims arising out of or related to your access or use of, or your inability to access or use, this website or the information contained in this website or other websites to which it is linked.