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Breast Cancer and Heredity: Why Family History Matters

Breast Cancer Awareness Month,Family History Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an important opportunity to learn more about protecting your health.  And to understand what your risk factors are for developing life-threatening cancer. Because many patients have questions about breast cancer and heredity.

There is a link between cancer diagnosis rates and hereditary genetics.  If you have more than one close family member diagnosed with breast cancer, there can be a shared genetic trait that may increase your risk of developing it too. 

Physicians frequently ask about medical history and the health history of your close family members.  That is because it helps complete the picture to determine if you have a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer. 

The good news is that different tests can help you identify if you have an increased risk for breast cancer.  And if you test positive, that can provide a roadmap to health and lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of developing the disease. 

If you have one or more close family members that were diagnosed with breast cancer, there are a few things you should know about heredity.  And steps you can take to guard your health if you have a family history of breast cancer. 

How Much Does Breast Cancer and Heredity Impact Patients?

The global medical community knows more about cancer today than ever before.  But a cure for cancer remains evasive, despite years of research.  That is because different risk factors can cause cancer.  

There is a link between heredity and cancer.  However, many people do not know to what extent a family history of breast cancer affects their chances of developing the disease.  Some people with more than one close family member with cancer never develop the condition.  And others with no history of breast cancer are diagnosed every year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5% to 10% of breast cancers are linked to heredity. That means patients with a known family history of breast cancer have a higher chance of being diagnosed.  

Humans inherit genetic data from our parents and grandparents, and some of the mysteries about cancer are locked in gene sequences. Sets of genetic codes are inherited from each parent (mother and father). 

Inside human DNA is the genetic data from parents, which determines physical traits and susceptibility to certain types of diseases. And hereditary breast cancer means that the disease runs in your family and may be caused by an inherited factor in your DNA. Specifically, a BRCA gene mutation that triggers the development of breast cancer. 

Can Genetic Testing Reveal an Increased Risk?

People with a family history of breast cancer may want to complete genetic testing.  While negative testing is not a guarantee that the patient will not develop it, a positive test can provide early detection and prevention opportunities. 

What would you do with that information if you knew that you had a mutated gene that could increase your risk of getting breast cancer? For starters, patients who get a confirmation of breast cancer 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer 2 (BRCA2) genes may make lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation, dietary changes, reduction of alcohol, and healthy weight management. 

Genetic testing for breast cancer detects whether there are abnormal genes or a mutation to the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes.  Normally, both genes help protect against breast cancer.  But if they are not functioning correctly, it can be a marker of the potential to develop breast cancer.  And indicate that a patient has a higher risk of developing breast cancer in the future. 

Knowledge is power, and understanding breast cancer risk factors mean a number of different things to patients.  First, regular follow-up with a primary care provider (PCP) and increased cancer screening may be advised.   

Health insurance may cover the cost of genetic testing if your family physician determines it is necessary based on a hereditary predisposition to cancer. It benefits patients to understand the risks in order to take additional steps for screening and early detection.

breast cancer heredity

What Does a Negative BRCA Test Mean?

A negative test result for mutated BRCA genes is a relief to patients.  But even if the genetic test returns negative, some other types of testing may be required.  Cancer can develop quickly and be triggered by lifestyle and other health factors. 

Some families may test negative for the BRCA gene mutations and still have a strong hereditary history of breast cancer.  But a negative BRCA mutation test implies a lesser chance of developing breast cancer because of inherited DNA. Or passing the trait on to your children. 

Patients should know, however, that just because you tested negative for mutated BRCA, does not mean you cannot develop breast cancer or another type of cancer.  The test is meant to provide an “early warning” to help patients make important changes that may help with prevention. 

Next Steps for Patients Who Test Positive for BRCA Gene Mutation 

Testing positive for the BRCA gene mutation confirms a predisposition to breast cancer.  That does not mean, however, that you will develop breast cancer.  It just means that you have a higher risk than someone who does not have the BRCA gene mutation. 

A positive test result means that you have a mutation known to cause hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. This is true for male and female patients (although the cases of breast cancer diagnoses in men are rarer). Breast cancer and heredity can affect both male and female patients.

Children and siblings of a patient with the BRCA gene mutation have a 50% chance of having the same mutation.  Often families will get tested to determine who has the gene, so that appropriate screening and treatment plans can be developed for early detection. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month,Family History Breast Cancer

The Link Between Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancers

Women who have had breast cancer in the past have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.  And the risk is greater for women who were diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age, or for oestrogen receptor negative (ER negative) cancer.

Treatment plans may include taking medications such as tamoxifen or raloxifene, or aromatase inhibitors.  They are medications that can reduce the risk of developing cancer. And some patients opt for prophylactic (preventative) surgery to remove fallopian tubes and ovaries by age forty if they test positive for the BRCA mutation. Some also choose to have a preventative mastectomy to further reduce the risk of breast cancer. 

A positive BRCA gene mutation test can prompt healthy lifestyle changes.  Obesity, and consumption of tobacco and alcohol products can increase risks. As well as diets high in processed food content are also known to increase cancer risks.  But lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk of developing breast cancer (even if you test positive for the BRCA gene mutation).

Being aware of your genetic markers and potential to develop breast cancer is the first and most important step toward prevention.  Talk to your doctor about your family history. And develop a regular plan for diagnostic testing can be developed.  

The survival rates in women are higher when diagnosed at the early stages. And when less invasive treatment options are available. Protect your health and get tested. Find out if breast cancer and heredity are health concerns for you.


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