The only thing that may feel more frightening than a breast cancer diagnosis is living in fear of a diagnosis. Whether it’s the abundance of celebrities who have battled the disease publicly or a family member who has faced the painful ordeal of a breast cancer diagnosis, the worry that you may someday deal with the disease first-hand can be all-consuming. As more people reveal that they had breast cancer, especially if they talk about having a BRCA gene mutation, you may start to wonder if you are at risk. Or, you may want to know in general what risks you can eliminate.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women. More than 200,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Early detection is key, and it’s important to know your body and what signs to look for, and if you are at risk.
Breast Cancer Risks Include
- Age – your chance increases with age
- Family history – having a mother or sister with breast cancer
- Menstruation history — onset of menstruation at an early age (under 12)
- Reproductive history — older age at first birth or never having given birth
- Dense breast tissue
- Having a gene mutation (BRCA gene)
- Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast or chest (as an infant or child)
- Taking hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone (after menopause)
- Drinking alcohol
The best approach to monitoring your risk for developing breast cancer is by following recommended screening guidelines. Women of average risk should begin annual screening mammograms at age 40, as recommended by the American College of Radiology and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This has been shown to save the most lives from breast cancer. Just as with any medical advice, a woman should discuss the risks and benefits of screening with her doctor. Women of higher risk should consider starting at an earlier age.
Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
Undergoing testing can reveal a potential higher risk for developing breast cancer. One of the most common genetic markers associated with inherited breast or ovarian cancer susceptibility is a mutation in the BRCA genes. These gene mutations can be passed down by a mother or a father. Typically, you must have a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer, or have a family history of these cancers in a number of family members to qualify for genetic testing.
Genetic testing information may help you:
- Learn if you have an increased likelihood of developing breast cancer
- Discover if inherited factors have contributed to your or a family member’s cancer
- Make more informed medical decisions
You should always talk to your doctor about your risks and to see if genetic testing is right for you. If you are concerned about your or a loved one’s cancer risk, you can undergo an evaluation through the UPMC Cancer Genetics Program.
For more information about breast cancer, risks, and genetic testing, visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Awareness page and the Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC’s Breast Cancer Program.