What Every Woman Needs to Know about Breast and Ovarian Cancers
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.
Breast and Ovarian Cancer Basics
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.
Breast and Ovarian Cancer Basics for Young Women
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:
- Breast and ovarian cancers in young women are more likely to be hereditary (passed down through families and because of an inherited BRCA gene mutation).
- Breast and ovarian cancers in young women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and are often more aggressive and difficult to treat.
- Young women can face unique issues when diagnosed, including concerns about body image, fertility, finances, and feelings of isolation.
Steps You Can Take Now
Learn More About Breast and Ovarian Cancers
Every woman can benefit from learning the risk factors and symptoms of breast and ovarian cancers.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer at Any Age
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.
Reproductive Risk Factors
- Being younger (before age 12) when you first had your menstrual period
- Starting menopause at a later age (after age 55)
- Being older (after age 35) at the birth of your first child
- Never giving birth
- Never breastfeeding for a long duration (1 year plus)
- Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy
Other Risk Factors
- Getting older
- Personal history of breast cancer or some noncancerous breast diseases
- Family history of breast cancer
- Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (ancestors from Central or Eastern Europe)
- Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast or chest
- Dense breast tissue – a condition that can be diagnosed by a mammogram
- Being overweight (increases risk for breast cancer after menopause)
- Having a mutation in the breast cancer-related genes BRCA1 or BRCA2
- Drinking alcohol (more than one drink a day)
- Not getting regular exercise
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
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.
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
- Any change in the size or the shape of the breast
- Pain in any area of the breast
Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
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:
- Reached or are past middle age
- Never given birth or had trouble getting pregnant
- A family history of ovarian cancer (mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother)
- Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (ancestors from central or Eastern Europe)
- A mutation in the breast cancer-related BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genes
- Been diagnosed with breast, uterine, colorectal (colon), or cervical cancer or melanoma
- Been diagnosed with endometriosis (a condition where tissue from the lining of the uterus grows elsewhere in the body)
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
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.
- Vaginal bleeding or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you
- Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area (the area below your stomach and between your hip bones)
- Back pain
- Bloating, which is when the area below your stomach swells or feels full
- Feeling full quickly while eating
- A change in your bathroom habits, such as constipation, diarrhea, or having to pass urine very urgently or very often
Talk to your Doctor
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.
Gathering Family History
Is family history of breast and ovarian cancers important?
Yes, your family medical history can help you know if your chances for getting breast or ovarian cancer are higher than average. The risk for breast and ovarian cancers are higher among women whose blood relatives have one of these diseases.
Your family medical history includes relatives from the mother’s and father’s side of the family. A woman whose mother, sister, or daughter had (or has) breast or ovarian cancer has a higher risk of getting one of them also.
How do I talk to my family about cancer? Won't that make them upset?
Asking your family members about their cancer histories and the deaths of relatives due to cancer may make them feel uncomfortable or upset.
Here are some tips for approaching your family about this topic:
- Explain your purpose. Share that you have learned that breast and ovarian cancers run in families. Women who know they have a family history of these cancers can take actions to reduce their risk. Let your family members know that you are trying to create a record of your family’s history of cancer to help protect your health.
- Invite your family members to respond to your request for information in a way and at a time that is most comfortable to them. This might mean a face-to-face conversation, a phone call, a letter, or e-mail.
- Word your questions carefully. Begin by asking your family members what they know about cancer in the family in general. Ask personal health questions later. Keep your questions short and to the point.
- Be a good listener. Let your relatives speak without interruption. Do not make judgments or comments.
- Respect the privacy of others. Understand that some relatives may not want to share health information with you or they may not want you to pass on the information to others.
- Write down what you learn. Our Family Cancer History Worksheet can help you keep the information organized.
For more information on this topic:
Bright Pink - Collect Your Family History
FORCE - Sharing Family History Worksheet
FORCE - Family Medical History Form
What if I don't know all of my family members' cancer history?
Know:BRCA Assessment calculates your chances of having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation based on your family cancer history. The more you know about your family's history of cancer, the more accurate the assessment will be. Our Family Cancer History Worksheet can help you collect the information you will need.
If you do not have access to any of your family's cancer history, the Know:BRCA Assessment is not for you. Instead, we encourage you to talk to you doctor about other options for learning your cancer risk. You can also continue reading "Learn the Facts" for more general breast and ovarian health information.