A little knowledge can go a long way in helping you understand your risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Once you learn your risk for these cancers, we hope you will talk to you doctor and develop a strategy to reduce your risk or detect these diseases at early, non-life-threatening stages.
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer starts in the breast, it is called breast cancer. About 7 out of 100 women (or 7%) will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the time they turn 70 years old.
Ovarian cancer is far less common. About 1 out of 100 women (or 1%) will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer by age 70. Though it is less common than breast cancer, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
About 5–10% of breast and 10-15% of ovarian cancers are hereditary. These hereditary breast and ovarian cancers are caused by inherited changes in genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.
While breast and ovarian cancers are most common in older women (about 89% of breast cancers occur in women older than 45 years of age), they can and do occur in younger women. There are some important differences when these cancers do affect young women:
Every woman can benefit from learning the risk factors and symptoms of breast and ovarian cancers.
If you have one or more of these factors, it does not mean you will get breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk.
Pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. If you have any signs that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.
If you have one or more of these factors, it does not mean you will get ovarian cancer. Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk.
If you have:
Pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. See a doctor if you have any of these signs for two weeks or longer and they are not normal for you.
The next time you visit the doctor, consider talking about what you have learned about breast and ovarian cancers.
Be sure to tell your doctor about your family history of cancer (especially breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, pancreatic, and prostate cancers) and about any other risk factors you may have.
If you need help collecting and organizing your family health history, use the U.S. Surgeon General's family health history portrait, https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/.
Together, you and your doctor can develop a personalized strategy to reduce your risk.
BRCA stands for BReast CAncer susceptibility gene. There are two BRCA genes - BRCA1 and BRCA2. The BRCA genes are called “tumor suppressor” genes. When functioning normally, these genes help the body prevent cancer. They help keep breast, ovarian, and other types of cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way.
Everyone has BRCA genes - one of each from your mother and one from your father.
When certain changes or “mutations” in the BRCA genes occur, cells are more likely to divide and change rapidly, which can lead to developing cancer. Breast and ovarian cancers caused by gene mutations are called “hereditary breast and ovarian cancers”. Only about 5–10% of breast and 10-15% of ovarian cancers diagnosed in the United States are associated with BRCA mutations.
Many people believe that only mothers can pass down BRCA gene mutations to their children, but this is not true. You can inherit a mutation from either of your parents. If one of your parents or siblings carries a BRCA gene mutation, you have a 50% chance of also having the mutation.
The only way to know for certain in you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation is to have a genetic test. You should meet with a trained genetic expert (e.g., genetic counselor, advanced practice nurse in genetics) and recieve genetic counseling prior to genetic testing. Most people do not need genetic counseling and testing. A genetic test will be helpful for a small number of people who have specific patterns of cancer in their families.
You may be at increased risk for a mutation if your family history includes any of the following:
You may be at increased risk for a mutation if your personal history includes any of the following:
People with BRCA gene mutations are at increased risk for developing breast, ovarian, and other cancers.
BRCA gene mutations may increase the risk of fallopian tube, peritoneal (lining in the abdomen), and pancreatic cancer in women. BRCA gene mutations may increase the risk of pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancer in men.
If you have a BRCA gene mutation, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer or to detect it earlier when treatment is most effective. Enhanced screening at an earlier age or at more frequent intervals, medicines, and risk-reducing surgeries are options to learn more about and discuss with your doctor.
If you have a BRCA gene mutation, you are not alone. There are many organizations that can help you learn more about living with a known BRCA gene mutation and to connect you with others.
Visit our Support Center for more information and resources for women at risk for BRCA gene mutations.