Charles Padgett, MD, chief of medical oncology at the MedStar Franklin Square Cancer Center at Loch Raven Campus, explains how genetics affect one's breast cancer risks.

A risk factor is anything that increases or affects your chances of getting a disease. For breast cancer:

  • Gender plays the greatest role in determining who is at risk, because women are at greater risk of developing the disease than men.
  • Age also is a factor, and as a woman’s age increases, so does her risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Women with a personal history of breast cancer (already had cancer in one breast) are at a risk of developing cancer in the other breast.

Other factors include

BRCA1 or BRCA2

Healthy breast cancer suppressor genes, also known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, help prevent breast cancer. A small number of women carry a mutation or defect of these genes, which greatly increases the risk of developing breast cancer, as well as ovarian cancer. While breast cancer isn't always a hereditary condition, the mutation of BRCA1 or BRCA2 does run in families.

  • About 5 to 10 percent of women with breast cancer have BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations.
  • Between 1 in 400 and 1 in 800 women in the U.S. are BRCA1 or BRCA2 carriers.
  • Men who carry a BRCA gene mutation have an increased risk of developing breast and prostate cancer, as well as other types of cancer.

You may carry this genetic mutation if any of the following characteristics apply to you:

  • You developed breast cancer before age 50
  • Your mother, sister, or daughter developed breast or ovarian cancer before age 50
  • Your mother, sister, or daughter developed ovarian cancer
  • Any female blood relative developed both breast and ovarian cancer
  • You or any female blood relative developed breast cancer in both breasts
  • You are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • Any male blood relative developed breast cancer

If you have the above factors, you can consider meeting with our genetic counselor to see if you need testing. If you do test positive for the BRCA mutation, you can consider the following options:

  • Close monitoring: You can closely monitor your breast health with yearly digital mammograms, breast MRI, and clinical breast exams every 6 months to detect abnormalities as early as possible
  • Prophylactic surgery: You can choose to have your breasts and/or your ovaries surgically removed to greatly reduce your chances of developing cancer.
  • Lifestyle choices: Make healthy lifestyle choices to lower your risk of developing cancer. These choices include maintaining a healthy weight and nutritious, low-fat diet, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake.
  • Chemoprevention: Your doctor may recommend taking tamoxifen or raloxifene to reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Heredity

The majority of breast cancer is not hereditary, but it can affect several people in the same family. A family history of breast cancer means you have a first-degree relative, such as a mother, sister, or daughter, who developed breast and/or ovarian cancer, or two or more close relatives who developed breast and/or ovarian cancer, especially if the cancer appeared before age 50.

If one of your female relatives develops breast cancer, your own risk for developing the condition doubles compared to someone without a family history. That risk goes up even further if more than one close female relative develops breast cancer at a young age.

Breast cancer risk can be inherited from either your mother's or your father's side of the family, so it is important to know your full family history.

Read about Angie Cramer, RN, registered nurse navigator at MedStar Franklin Square, who has an extensive family history of breast cancer, including herself. 

Radiation Exposure

Research demonstrates that women exposed to high doses of radiation during childhood have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Examples of this kind of exposure include radiation therapy for childhood cancer or Hodgkin's disease.

Your risk for breast cancer increases depending on how much radiation you were exposed to and how young you were at the time of your exposure. If you were exposed to radiation, you should monitor your breast health closely and discuss with your doctor whether you will need an MRI of your breast.

Learn about breast cancer screening and reducing your risk here.

Reducing your Risk

Although breast cancer cannot be prevented, you can help reduce your risk by following some healthy guidelines, including

  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit your intake of alcohol to no more than one drink per day

It is important to note, however, a great deal is still unknown about breast cancer. Some women who have risk factors never develop breast cancer and most women who develop the disease have no known risk factors.

Learn More

In the videos below, Emily Kuchinsky, MS, certified genetic counselor with the MedStar Health Cancer Network, explain how genetics affect one's risk for breast cancer.

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Location Information

MedStar Franklin Square Cancer Center at Loch Raven Campus
(Located on the campus of MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital)
5601 Loch Raven Blvd.
Russell Morgan Building, Suite 103
Baltimore, MD 21239

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Breast Cancer Specialists