Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(1):106

See related article on breast cancer.

Breast cancer seems to run in my family. What should I do?

Talk with your doctor about your family history. Try to be as clear as possible about the relationships between you and family members who have had breast cancer. For example, your doctor will want to know if you are related by blood to these people. Your doctor will also want to know how old your relatives were when their breast cancer was diagnosed.

What clues in my family history might show I've inherited a risk of breast cancer?

Breast cancer in two or more first-degree relatives is a sign that the disease might run in your family. First-degree relatives include your mother, sisters and daughters. Another sign of a risk of inherited breast cancer is a first-degree relative who got breast cancer before she was 50 years old. If you have a first-degree relative with ovarian cancer, that might also mean that you risk carrying the breast cancer gene.

Keep in mind, though, that the chances of inheriting breast cancer aren't high, even if someone in your family has had the disease. Many women have mothers, daughters or sisters who have had breast cancer. They don't have an increased risk—most women don't get the inherited kind of breast cancer.

What gene causes breast cancer to be inherited?

Two genes cause an increased risk of breast cancer in families. These genes are called BRCA1 and BRCA2. BRCA1 is also found in some women with ovarian cancer. Women from Ashkenazi Jewish families are more likely than other women to carry BRCA1.

Should I have a test to find out if I carry the breast cancer gene?

Your doctor can help you decide if a gene test might be useful for you. Talking with your doctor about the test is the first step. Talking with a genetic counselor would also be helpful.

Think how you might feel if the results show that you carry the breast cancer gene and are at risk of getting breast cancer. Some women want to know if they have the gene. Knowing, instead of wondering, helps them deal with the risk of breast cancer. But other women feel that knowing they have the breast cancer gene would be too hard to cope with. They would rather not know. Talk with your doctor about your feelings.

Where can I get more information?

To get information about the genetic risk of breast cancer, you can call the American Cancer Society, 1-800-ACS-2345, or check their World Wide Web site:

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