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Am I at Risk for Breast Cancer? How Do I Know?

Breast cancer is a terrifying disease. And one thing that makes it even scarier is that it’s impossible to predict who will get it and who won’t.

It just happens. 

Even though doctors can’t predict who will get breast cancer, some things put people at higher risk of developing it. Whether you are 20 years old or 70, female or male, the first step you can take against breast cancer is to know your risk.

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You may be thinking, “Where do I start?” Start with your family history.

If someone in your family has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer in your lifetime.

Why is this? It is possible that your family has “the gene(s).” The most common and well-studied gene(JEAN) — A part of the DNA, or blueprint, that determines human characteristics associated with breast cancer are BRCA1(BRAK-AH-ONE) — An abnormal or mutated breast cancer gene that is passed down from parent to child and is associated with an increased chance of developing breast cancer; also known as Breast Cancer Gene One and BRCA2(BRAK-AH-TOO) — An abnormal or mutated breast cancer gene that is passed down from parent to child and is associated with an increased chance of developing breast cancer; also known as Breast Cancer Gene Two. (BRCA stands for breast (BR) cancer (CA)). Similar to the genes that determine the color of your eyes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are passed from parent to child.

Breast cancer isn’t the only cancer you should be looking for in your family history. Even though BRCA stands for breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have been found in patients with ovarian cancer(OH-VEH-REE-UHN CAN-SIR) — Abnormal growth that originates from ovarian tissue, prostate cancer(PRAH-STATE CAN-SIR) — Abnormal growth that originates from prostate tissue, and several other cancers.

Knowing if you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is important because women who carry one of these genes have an 85%chance of developing cancer in their lifetime.1 Men who carry the BRCA2 gene have a 6% chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. 2,3 That is 100 times higher risk than the average male.

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Those are scary statistics, but instead of focusing on the numbers, focus on what you can do about it.

Prevention methods and early detection are key. For women, prevention methods include medications and surgery(SIR-JER-REE) — Physical removal of a tumor, while early detection involves screening tests(SKREE-NING TESTS) — A procedure used to discover a disease at an early stage like mammograms(MAM-O-GRAMS) — A screening test that uses x-rays to look for breast cancer and MRIsA loud banging machine that uses magnets to obtain pictures of the inside of the body; magnetic resonance imaging. (Because male breast cancer is much rarer, self-examination(SELF IG-ZAM-IN-A-SHUN) — Using your hands to feel for abnormal tissue in your breast is the only recommended screening test for men.)

It’s never too early to start talking to your doctor about prevention and to know when you should start receiving breast cancer screening(SKREE-NING) — Using a test to find a specific disease or condition at an early point in the course of a disease. If you have increased risk, you may be recommended to start screening at a much younger age than usual.

Additionally, if you have a strong family history of breast cancer, there are online calculators to help you assess your risk for cancer. These tools include BRCAPRO, Claus, and Tyrer-Cuzick.

Family history is just one of the risk factors for breast cancer, but it is a good place to start.

Read our book, How Breast Cancer Is Like a Dandelion, to learn more about breast cancer high-risk factors, prevention options, and screening.

And, if you, unfortunately, know someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, be a Girlfriend In Action. Help her through this difficult time by passing this book onto her, giving her a place to start and a guide through her journey.

  1. Genetics of Breast and Gynecologic Cancers (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/hp/breast-ovarian-genetics-pdq#section/_88.
  2. Tai, Chuan Y, Susan, et al. Breast Cancer Risk Among Male BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutation Carriers | JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute | Oxford Academic. OUP Academic. https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/99/23/1811/993419. Published December 5, 2007. Accessed October 5, 2018.
  3. Easton DF, Steele L, Fields P, et al. American Journal of Human Genetics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1715847/. Published July 1997. Accessed October 5, 2018.
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