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Breast Cancer in the Family? Find Out What It Means


October 18, 2019

At a family gathering, you learn that your aunt was just diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s shocking news. But it also reminds you that your grandmother on your mother’s side had cancer years ago, and your uncle on your father’s side had pancreatic cancer.

Your relatives’ health may have you wondering: If cancer runs in my family, does that mean I’ll get it too?

If your relatives have—or have had—breast cancer, it may increase your own risk for the disease. But it’s certainly not guaranteed that you’ll get it. Not everyone with cancer in the family has what’s considered a strong family history or an inherited genetic risk, but both of those situations can increase your chances of getting cancer considerably.

“When we think in terms of breast and other hereditary cancers, we know that about 10% occur because there’s a gene that is present,” says Caroline Peterson, DO, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Progressive Women’s Healthcare and Kettering Health Network’s director of Cancer Screening and Prevention Program. “There’s another 15-20% that occur because of family history, and 70% are sporadic.”

All of that said, knowing your family history is very important. Breast cancer in the family is more likely to be significant if it occurs in a close relative. For instance, if your mother, sister, or daughter had breast cancer, it may nearly double your chances of getting the disease. If your father or grandfather had prostate or pancreatic cancer, it could also increase your risk for breast cancer.

“These genes don’t just come from mom’s side of the family,” Dr. Peterson says. “Fathers can pass the gene for breast cancer too.”

If you’re at higher risk due to family history, you may need to follow a different screening schedule to increase your chances of finding and treating breast cancer as early as possible.

“The first step is to do a risk stratification to identify which patients may be at a higher risk and which may be at average risk,” Dr. Peterson says. “Our electronic medical record program allows your provider to run a risk assessment and screen patients at risk for 34 genes, 23 of which are colorectal, 19 are breast, 13 are pancreatic and 11 are prostate.”

“Cancer risk assessment should start to happen in your early 20s,” Dr. Peterson says.

Talk to your doctor

If an inherited risk of breast cancer is suspected, your doctor may suggest steps to reduce your risk, such as earlier and more frequent screenings, certain medications, and even preventative surgeries.

“Some women may opt for a prophylactic mastectomy or reconstruction,” Dr. Peterson says. “In appropriate cases, there is chemoprevention to block estrogen receptors to the breast tissue.”

To request an appointment with one of our oncologists, visit our Cance Care page.