Collect Your Family History
Where to Start
Since we know breast and ovarian cancer are often linked in families, it’s important to learn about your family history. Find out which relatives—on both parents’ sides, if you’re able—have had cancer of any kind, which types, and how old they were when diagnosed. While breast and ovarian cancer history is important, other types of cancer can also be indicators—so capture everything you can using our Family Health History form. Then, you’ll be all set to Assess Your Risk using our tool.
Note who had cancer, how old the person was at the time of diagnosis, and what type of cancer was detected.
Family History: What to look out for
You may be at higher risk if you are a woman with a personal or family history of…
Breast cancer by age 40
Breast cancer at age 50 or younger with a close relative with ovarian cancer or breast cancer by age 50
Male breast cancer
Breast cancer at any age with two or more close relatives with breast cancer at any age
Breast cancer in both breasts
Ovarian cancer, primarily peritoneal cancer or fallopian tube cancer at any age
A close relative with known genetic mutation associated with an increased or high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer risk (eg. BRCA1, BRCA2, PTEN, Lynch Syndrome, etc.)
Triple-negative breast cancer
Personal history of radiation to the chest for another disease, such as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
“When my mother found out she had breast cancer after my tumor was found, it sparked something in me. How impactful one person’s push or concern for another’s health can be—it truly saves lives. I wasn’t done at one; here’s to the next life that can be saved, whoever you are!”
Tell Me More: Understanding Hereditary Cancer
A little knowledge about genes can go a long way in helping you understand your risk for hereditary cancer.
Gene mutations associated with both breast and ovarian cancer can run in families. Scientific breakthroughs in the last two decades have uncovered many mutation types, including BRCA1, BRCA2, PALB2, MLH1, TP53, PTEN, STK11, CDH1, CHEK2 and ATM, among other less well-defined gene-mutation syndromes.
Genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 (for breast cancer genes 1 and 2) normally stop breast and ovarian cells from growing and dividing uncontrolled. When an error occurs, or there is a mutation, 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 are damaged, your body loses a tool for stopping cancer cells from growing.
Some people are not born with normal genes—they inherit a mutation. Since they don’t have backup protection, any damage to the normal gene can lead to cancer.
The good news is that these mutations can sometimes be discovered through genetic testing, so those that carry them can proactively reduce their risk. If you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you should ask your health provider about genetic testing. And if you already have breast or ovarian cancer, understanding whether your cancer is hereditary in nature can impact your family members and help you and your doctors create a more personalized healthcare plan.
Women with a BRCA mutation face up to an 87% lifetime risk for breast cancer and up to a 54% lifetime risk for ovarian cancer—much higher than the general population.
The first thing every woman should do is assess her risk. If you learn that you are at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer, you should ask your doctor about genetic testing. If you already have breast or ovarian cancer, learning that it is hereditary can also help you and your doctors choose the best treatment plan and follow-up care for you.
You can also take advantage of our Ask a Genetic Counselor resource and feel free to ask any questions you may have!