As researchers study more and more of the major diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, they are finding that many of them have a genetic component, that is, they run in families. The field of genetic medicine is quite new, but scientists have made some strides in relation to breast cancer.
It is estimated that around 5% to 10% of breast cancer and genetics cases have a connection. This is good news for the 90% of people who do not have a genetic pre-disposition to this form of cancer. For those who do, following a healthy lifestyle can help offset the risks.
Who’s at risk with breast cancer and genetics?
There are three genes that have been identified that may be faulty and therefore potentially lead to cancer. The gene mutations to watch out for are in relation to:
These genes normally suppress tumor growth. If they are mutated, they are unable to function properly.
If you carry one or more of these mutations you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, and certain other cancers, such as ovarian cancer. Also, the cancer tends to develop at an earlier age than usual.
About 1 in 20 women are likely to carry one of these faulty genes. There is then a 50/50 chance of passing it on to each child that you have, because we each inherit half of our traits from our parents.
Because of these faulty genes, breast cancer does occur more often than usual in some families, and is terms familial breast cancer or hereditary breast cancer. It is important to note that men can also carry the gene, and either have breast cancer themselves, (about 1 in 1,000 men will get it), or pass the gene to their offspring.
Assessing your risk
Because breast cancer is common, many of us will have a relative who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. This is not usually due to any of the faulty genes mentioned above but is more often by chance. For example, may people in the same family have similar habits when it comes to eating, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and so on.
But in terms of genetics, your risk becomes greater:
- The more blood relatives you have who have been diagnosed with breast cancer
- The closer the relationship to you of the person with breast cancer, such as mother, sister, aunt
- The younger your relatives were when they were first diagnosed with breast cancer, especially if they were under 40
- If a relative had breast cancer which affected both breasts
- If a male relative developed breast cancer
- If both breast and ovarian cancer run in the family
- If you come from certain ethnic backgrounds, such as from the Ashkenazi Jewish community.
Breast cancer prevention
If you test positive for the mutation, or have one or more immediate relatives who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, discuss your concerns with your doctor and come up with a healthy screening and living plan.
You might also like to work with your relatives to create a health ‘family tree’ to share as much information as possible about the cause of death of any deceased relatives and any present major health concerns within your immediate family.
It is important to remember that having genetic factors related to breast cancer is by no means a guarantee that you will get it. A sensible monitoring program of healthy lifestyle measures, self-exam, doctor’s checkups and mammograms should help keep you healthy.
Even if something is found, early detection can help ensure the best outcome. The important thing is to not let the breast cancer and genetics component determine your fate. Don’t let your genes determine your fate, but rather, to be pro-active about your health to beat breast cancer.