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The average woman has a small chance of getting breast cancer and an even smaller chance of getting ovarian cancer.
But if someone in your family has had breast or ovarian cancer, your chances of getting those cancers may be higher. And if you have 2 or 3 relatives who have had these cancers, your chances may be even higher.
If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, it may be important to you to find out how high your risk is so that you can decide whether to do something to lower that risk, like take medicine or have surgery.
The best way to find out about your risk is to talk to your doctor. But you can get some idea of how high your risk is by knowing your family history and understanding how it relates to breast and ovarian cancers.
Having a family history means that you have one or more blood relatives with breast or ovarian cancer.
Some family histories are stronger than others. Here's what determines whether your family history is strong:
In the tables below, the figures are only rough estimates from research studies. Lifetime risk means the chance that you will get these cancers sometime during your life. These numbers may not apply to you, but they can give you an idea of how high your risk may be.
About 12 out of 100 women will get breast cancer.footnote 1
1 first-degree relative with breast cancer
About 24 out of 100 women will get breast cancer.footnote 2
2 first-degree relatives with breast cancer
About 36 out of 100 women will get breast cancer.footnote 2
See a picture that may help you understand how much having a family history can increase your risk for breast cancer.
About 1 out of 100 women will get ovarian cancer.footnote 3
1 first-degree relative with ovarian cancer
About 5 out of 100 women will get ovarian cancer.footnote 3
2 or more relatives with ovarian cancer
About 7 out of 100 women will get ovarian cancer.footnote 3
See a picture that may help you understand how much having a family history can increase your risk for ovarian cancer.
Your doctor will ask about at least three generations of your family history and tell you how much it affects your risk. Your doctor may also send you to a genetic counselor, someone who is trained to help people understand their risks for certain diseases.
Sometimes a very strong family history is caused by a mutated gene that runs in the family.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that normally help control cell growth. But an inherited change, called a mutation, in one of these genes makes you much more likely to get breast and ovarian cancers. BRCA (say "BRAH-kuh") stands for BReast CAncer. A BRCA gene test is a blood test that can tell you and your doctor whether you have one of these changed genes.
Having a BRCA gene change is rare. Most women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer don't have a BRCA gene change.
Before you have a gene test, you will need to see a genetic counselor. Counseling will help you make an informed decision about whether to have a BRCA gene test. It is often covered by insurance, but check with your insurance company to find out for sure.
You may be more likely to have a BRCA gene change if you:footnote 4
In the table below, the figures are only rough estimates from research studies. These numbers may not apply to you, but they can give you an idea of how high your risk may be.
Breast cancer risk
Ovarian cancer risk
About 12 out of 100 women will get breast cancer sometime during their lives.
About 1 out of 100 women will get ovarian cancer sometime during their lives.
BRCA1 gene carriers
About 55 to 65 out of 100 will get breast cancer by age 70.
About 39 out of 100 will get ovarian cancer by age 70.
BRCA2 gene carriers
About 45 out of 100 will get breast cancer by age 70.
About 11 to 17 out of 100 will get ovarian cancer by age 70.
Pictures may help you understand these numbers better. See the following pictures to get a better idea of how much a BRCA gene change increases your risk for:
If you are worried that you may have a BRCA gene change, talk to your doctor.
The best way to find out is to see your doctor. Your doctor will ask you for as much information about your relatives as you can give (for example, what kind of cancer they had, if any; how old they were when they were diagnosed; and, if they have died, how old they were when they died).
People often don't have a lot of information about all of their relatives. The more you can find out, the better your doctor can help you figure out how strong your family history is.
Your doctor may send you to a genetic counselor, who can help you learn how high your cancer risk is. After counseling, you may decide to have a BRCA gene test.
The discovery of a genetic disease that isn't causing symptoms now (such as breast cancer or Huntington's disease) should not affect your ability to gain employment or health insurance coverage. A law in the United States, called the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), helps protect people who have DNA differences that may affect their health. But it has some limits. For example, this law doesn't apply to life insurance, disability insurance, or long-term care insurance. And it doesn't protect people who work for companies with fewer than 15 employees.
Finding out how high your risk is can help you make important decisions about your health. Some women decide to take extra steps to prevent breast and ovarian cancer, such as having checkups more often, taking anti-cancer medicine, or having surgery to remove the breasts, the ovaries, or both.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
National Cancer Institute (2010). SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Breast from SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975–2007. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Available online: http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html. American Cancer Society (2013). Breast cancer: Early detection. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/moreinformation/breastcancerearlydetection/index. National Cancer Institute (2012). Ovarian Cancer Prevention PDQ—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://nci.nih.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/ovarian/healthprofessional. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2013). Risk assessment, genetic counseling, and genetic testing for BRCA-related cancer in women: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf12/brcatest/brcatestfinalrs.htm. Accessed March 6, 2014. National Cancer Institute (2016). BRCA1 and BRCA2: Cancer risk and genetic testing. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet. Accessed April 6, 2016.
ByHealthwise Staff Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah A. Marshall, MD - Family Medicine Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine Elizabeth T. Russo, MD - Internal Medicine Specialist Medical Reviewer Wendy Y. Chen, MD, MPH - Medical Oncology, Hematology
Current as ofMarch 28, 2018
Current as of:
March 28, 2018
Sarah A. Marshall, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Elizabeth T. Russo, MD - Internal Medicine & Wendy Y. Chen, MD, MPH - Medical Oncology, Hematology
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