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August 20, 2008 > Do You Have Breast or Ovarian Cancer in Your Family?

Do You Have Breast or Ovarian Cancer in Your Family?

Washington Hospital Seminar Focuses on Genetic Risk Factors

Does your family have a history of cancer? If you have a mother, sister or aunt who had breast or ovarian cancer, you may be at higher risk for developing these diseases.
"The vast majority of cancers are random," said Dr. Vandana Sharma, an oncologist at Washington Hospital who will present a seminar on genetics and cancer. "About 90 percent of those who get cancer have no prior family history. But in about 10 percent of cancers, genetics does play a role."
"Genetics for Breast and Ovarian Health" is scheduled for Thursday, August 28, from 12 to 1 p.m. Part of Washington Hospital's Lunch and Learn series, the seminar will be held at the Washington Women's Center, 2500 Mowry Avenue, in Fremont. To register, call (800) 963-7070.
Sharma will talk about hereditary cancer syndrome and explain how your family history of cancer affects your chances of getting it. All women have some risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, but having a family history can mean a significantly increased risk for you.
Just as there are genes that define traits like eye and hair color, there are also genes that increase a person's susceptibility to cancer. The two genes most often associated with inherited breast and ovarian cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Mutations in these two genes increase a woman's risk for both cancers.
While DNA test are available to detect these mutated genes - and Sharma will discuss that option - your family's medical history is the best starting point to determine whether you have inherited a predisposition to either type of cancer.
If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may be at increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer:
* Have any of your female relatives developed breast cancer before they reached menopause or before age 50?
* Has anyone in your family been diagnosed with ovarian cancer?
* Has anyone in your family been diagnosed with both breast and ovarian cancer, or with multiple cancers?
* Are there clusters or patterns of certain types of cancer among close relatives?
Lowering Your Risk
While breast cancer can strike men, it is mostly a women's disease. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer. Ovarian cancer affects far fewer women, however, the difficulty in detecting this disease means by the time most women are diagnosed, the cancer is far along. Breast cancer kills more than 40,000 women each year while ovarian cancer takes about 15,000 women each year.
Learning your family history is important because there are steps you can take now to lower your risk of dying from breast and ovarian cancer.
"Screening for early detection can help improve your outcome," Sharma said. "But we need to know if someone is at risk for hereditary cancer syndrome so we can adjust the screening schedule."
For example, screening guidelines suggest women should start getting mammograms at age 40. "But if I see a woman whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42, I would recommend she begin screening at age 32. In addition, women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations should begin breast cancer screening by age 25," she explained.
Sharma will talk about genetic counseling and screening for breast and ovarian cancer as well as colon cancer, including who is a good candidate for genetic counseling. She will also explain what genetic testing can tell you about your risk for these diseases.
"Understanding your genetic risk for developing cancer is key because we can help those individuals who might need special monitoring, special screening and preventive treatment options," Sharma said.
To learn more about your risk for breast and ovarian cancer, register for the seminar at (800) 963-7070.
For more information about other Washington Hospital programs and services, visit

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