I know I have a family history of breast cancer. Does this mean I have an increased risk for developing breast cancer?

Simply having a family history of breast cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you have an increased risk of developing the disease yourself. Doctors look for specific patterns of breast cancer in a family. Some patterns of cancer in a family look like hereditary breast cancer (such as seen in families with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations). Other patterns put a woman at higher than average risk but do not suggest hereditary breast cancer. Instead, the pattern of breast cancer in the family may be due to unknown environmental factors that family members are exposed to, or it may be caused by a mutation in a gene that moderately increases breast cancer risk but for which genetic testing is not yet available.

What kind of family history might suggest an increased risk of developing breast cancer?

A family history that might suggest an increased risk of developing breast cancer would include at least one of the following:

• You or a family member diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 50 or ovarian cancer at any age.

• Two or more relatives on the same side of your family diagnosed with either breast or ovarian cancer.

• You or a family member diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer or breast cancer in both breasts.

• A male relative diagnosed with breast cancer.

• Ashkenazi Jewish heritage (Jews of Eastern European descent) with one or more relatives diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer.

• A family member with a known gene mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2.

What should I do if I think my family history puts me at high risk?

If any of these above descriptions applies to you or if you are still worried about your family history, talk with your doctor. It’s helpful to collect your family health history and bring it with you. If possible, include the age at which your family members were diagnosed with cancer, as cancers that present at a younger age may suggest a hereditary pattern.

If your doctor feels that it is appropriate, you may be referred to a genetic counsellor who is skilled in assessing hereditary cancer risk. Getting a referral to a counsellor is the first step in determining if you have a hereditary cancer risk. If you don’t have a doctor or have questions about this process, you can call Willow at 1-888-778-3100.

Links to more information

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FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered

Assess Your Risk
Be Bright Pink

Breast Cancer
Genetics Home Reference

Guide to Understanding Genetics and Family Risk Assessment
Living Beyond Breast Cancer