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October 15, 2008 > Learn More About Your Hereditary Risks for Breast and Ovarian Cancer

Learn More About Your Hereditary Risks for Breast and Ovarian Cancer

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," says Dr. Vandana Sharma, an oncologist at Washington Hospital. "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."
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 tests are available to detect these mutated genes, 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.

If you would like to learn more about genetic counseling and testing for heredity breast and ovarian cancer contact Kathy Hesser, R.N., Washington Women's Center Coordinator at (510) 608-1356 for upcoming new informational classes on this important topic.


Washington Women's Center Breast Cancer Resources

The Washington Women's Center in cooperation with your physician is proud to offer comprehensive breast health support to patients and their families during this stressful time by providing educational opportunities about your diagnosis.


What is a Care Conference?

At a care conference, your doctors will discuss your individual medical history, diagnostic findings and options for medical and surgical interventions that will impact your future care. These specialists may include surgical, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiologists, pathologists, and plastic surgeons. This conference is not a substitute for individual consultations with all the medical specialties involved in your care, and it does not provide binding decisions about your care. Rather, it is an opportunity to actively participate, gather information, and discuss options with various specialties at one time.


How Do I Schedule?

Tell your physician that you would like to be scheduled for a Breast Cancer Care Conference. Your physician's office will make the arrangements and you will be contacted with a date and time.


Is there a charge for this conference?

No. This is considered one of the many ways the Washington Women's Center can support your understanding of your diagnosis and treatment. Along with your doctor visits and scheduled treatments, the Breast Care Conference is a learning opportunity for you and your family. Call (510) 608-1356 to speak with the Women's Center Coordinator for more information.

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