While all women are at risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer over their lifetimes, some women have an extra risk, often because of factors beyond their control.
You may face a higher risk of breast or ovarian cancer if your first pregnancy came at a late age or if your menstrual cycles began at an early age. You may also have an elevated risk if your blood levels of female hormones remain high after menopause, or if you used hormone replacement therapy for a long period of time after menopause.
If you have close relatives who developed breast and/or ovarian cancer at young ages, you may have an increased risk as well, especially if you or a relative carries a breast/ovarian cancer gene. Unfortunately, it is also possible to develop breast and/or ovarian cancer without having any of the above risk factors. For this reason, we recommend that all women follow established recommendations for breast health: regular exercise, maintenance of healthy body weight, minimal alcohol intake, and regular monitoring and screening as recommended by age. These offer the best chance of keeping cancer risk at a minimum.
The Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program can help you understand of your own risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. A realistic understanding can help you plan how you want to manage that risk.
You may have a predisposition to develop breast or ovarian cancer if:
- You have any of the strongest risk factors: an altered breast cancer gene or a biopsy showing particular findings.
- You have a parent, brother, sister, or child who has been diagnosed with breast and/or ovarian cancer, especially if they were younger than 50 when diagnosed.
- At least two of your other close relatives (grandparent, aunts, cousins) have had breast cancer before 50 or ovarian cancer at any age.
- You or any family member has had breast or ovarian cancer before menopause.
- You have had a pre-cancerous condition found on breast biopsy, such as atypical ductal or lobular hyperplasia, or lobular carcinoma in situ of the breast.
- You or a family member had a genetic test showing that you carry a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
- Your family is known to have a hereditary cancer syndrome, such as Cowden syndrome or Li-Fraumeni syndrome. Both are associated with other rare cancers in addition to breast cancers at young ages.
If you or your doctor thinks you are at high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program can create a personalized program to estimate your risk as accurately as possible and work with you, your physicians and nurse practitioners to lower your risk as much as possible.
This begins with a cancer risk evaluation, where you will meet with a genetic counselor and a physician to discuss your family's history of cancer. Surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and social workers are also available to talk with you and your family. One goal of this evaluation is to help you learn what steps you can take to lower your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
Any plan for lowering cancer risk must include cancer screening, which can help find cancer early. The staff at the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program can help you determine which types of cancer screening tests are best for you, and how often you should be screened.
Genetic testing can be an important part of finding genetic markers that could dramatically increase the risk of cancer. Learning whether or not you carry a genetic mutation may influence how, how often, and when you and your family begin cancer screenings.
You may have the opportunity to take part in clinical trials. These studies examine the best ways to prevent breast and ovarian cancers, as well as methods to help detect these cancers early, when treatment is most effective. Other studies seek to understand the factors that influence when a cancer might develop.
Learn about the breast and ovarian cancer studies currently underway at the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program at Dana-Farber.