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How much does a family history of cancer really increase my risk?

South Texas Breast Cancer Surgeon Dr. Maria Palafox discusses increased cancer risk caused by hereditary risk

· breast cancer,Genetic Testing,Breast Surgeon

We have all heard that having a family member with cancer increases our risk of developing cancer, but by how much exactly? Is it enough to make a difference? The answer is yes, a big difference. In today's article, Dr. Palafox explains exactly how much your risk of developing breast cancer increases based on the number of family members who have had cancer, the type of cancer they have had, their age of diagnosis, and how close to you that family member is in your family tree.

The facts on hereditary breast cancer risk

Ladies, I will start with the scary truth. If you have one first-degree female relative who has had breast cancer, your risk of developing breast cancer is twice (200%) the risk of the "average" female who does not have a family history of breast cancer.

If you have two first-degree relatives who have been previously diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk jumps to nearly three times the risk of the "average" female, and to nearly four times the average risk if you have three or more relatives who have had breast cancer. This, ladies, is a big deal. A very big deal. And the younger your family member was at diagnosis, the higher still your risk.

Does a family history of another type of cancer increase my breast cancer risk?

Great question! A family history of ovarian cancer, specifically, has found to be directly correlated to an increased breast cancer risk in both men and women. The risk is greatest if a first-degree relative has or had the disease. This means your mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, or son. Although the majority of women with relatives affected by the disease will not develop cancer during their lifetime, the increased risk creates a need to take pause and consider the benefits of being tested for known genetic mutations related to the disease.

Can I actually have my genetic risk tested?

You sure can! Science is an incredible thing and has brought us so far in terms of understanding cancer and some of the genetic mutations that cause it. Inherited genetic alterations, or mutations in two specific genes actually account for 5-10% of all female breast cancers, 5-20% of male breast cancer, and 15-20% of all familial breast cancers (American Cancer Society). These two "breast cancer susceptibility genes" are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, and we can actually test for the presence of these "mutations" in your body. Better yet, the test is simple to do and typically covered by insurance if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

How simple? Super simple. We used to take a small vile of blood and submit it to the lab for testing, but now we have a test that can actually test for this mutation directly from your saliva. No kidding. Just a little spit can tell us a lot.

How many people have these breast cancer susceptibility genes?

Less than 1% of the population has the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genetic mutation, so the mutation itself is pretty rare as a percentage. But remember, there are about 319 million people living in the United States. A quick math calculation will tell you that 1% of 318 million is 3,190,000, and 3 million people is serious business!

What is my risk of developing breast cancer if I have BRCA1 or BRCA2?

Let's start by saying that the "average" woman's risk for developing breast cancer before she is 70 years old is 7%. Women who are carriers of the BRCA1 mutation carry a risk of developing breast cancer between 57-65%, and carriers of the BRCA2 mutation carry a 45-55% risk of developing the disease. This is why we hear so much about genetic testing for breast cancer, and why it is so important to know, when possible, of any cancer history in your family.

Dr. Maria Palafox is an expert in genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer, as well as in working with families to determine the best next steps for them in the event they carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation. She can be reached at (210) 504-5053 or www.MariaPalafoxMD.com

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