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Family history of breast cancer? Here’s what that means for you

One of the biggest health concerns women around the world face is the possibility of developing breast cancer. It’s normal to worry about breast cancer, especially as you age and especially if you have a family history.

Keep in mind, just because you have a family history of breast cancer, this does not mean you will develop cancer, too. All it means is that you are at a greater risk—but your doctor can help you take steps today to lower that risk.

Five to 10% of diagnosed breast cancer patients have had a relative who has had breast cancer before. If you do find out a family member has or had breast cancer, this is what it could mean for you.

Understanding your family tree

A strong family history of breast cancer can be correlated with a mutated gene, such as a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation. However, a previous case of breast cancer in a person’s family does not immediately suggest a genetic mutation.

A good rule of thumb is that if a first relative, such as a sibling, parent or child, has had a case of breast cancer, especially at a young age, then you should consider the possibility of a DNA test and genetic counseling. To be more specific, here are the calculated risks scientists have predicted for a person with a family history of breast cancer:

  • 1 first degree female relative = twice the risk of breast cancer
  • 2 first degree female relatives = around three times the risk of breast cancer
  • 1 male first relative = unknown exact percentage of risk, but the risk is higher

Now, if you fall under one of these categories, don’t panic. But you should consider genetic testing and talk to your medical team about your concerns.

Symptoms of breast cancer

If you do have a family medical history of breast cancer, make sure you know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer to watch for. Be diligent about breast self-exams and keeping up with regular screenings.

Contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • New lumps in either the breast or armpit
  • Swelling in parts of the breast
  • Skin irritation in the breast
  • Pulling or pain in the area near the nipple
  • Change in size or shape of the breast
  • Nipple discharge
  • Redness on the breast

Keep up with breast cancer screenings

Cancer screenings are incredibly vital for your health because they can lead to early treatment of cancer—which results in a higher likelihood of survival. A family history of cancer may indicate that you need to start your screenings earlier than is typically recommended. Your doctor can advise you on what screening type and cadence is best for you.

Some of the most common breast cancer screenings that your medical team may recommend include:

  • Mammograms: the most common screening test for breast cancer. It works by having a machine take an x-ray picture of the breast tissue.
  • DBT (Digital Breast Tomosynthesis): a three-dimensional mammogram that can fill in gaps that a traditional mammogram cannot.
  • Ultra-Sonography: a test that uses high sound waves to create an image of the breast and its tissue
  • MRI: a screening method that works by using magnets to create images of the breast

Taking charge of your breast cancer risk

Should you find out that your family history indicates a high risk of breast cancer, there are several ways that your physician may suggest to reduce the risk. The most common and easiest way of lowering breast cancer probability is by staying healthy.

  • Healthy eating patterns
  • Staying in a healthy weight range
  • Being physically active
  • Limiting alcohol consumption

Additionally, medications can be taken to help lower breast cancer likelihood. It is important to emphasize that only people with a high risk of developing breast cancer should consider these medications because of the potential side effects associated with these medications. Your medical team can help determine if these medications are the right for you.

Next steps

Understanding your breast cancer risk factors gives you the tools to be proactive about your health. Talk with your healthcare team to make sure you’re up to date on all your screenings, continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle and understand your options. This will give you all the tools you need to be your own best advocate when it comes to cancer prevention.

About the author

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Vaishali Kent, MD, is a breast surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth.

Family history of breast cancer? Here’s what that means for you