Reducing Your Risk Of Breast Cancer
A family history of breast cancer is one of the strongest risk factor for developing breast cancer. It is thought that almost 10% of breast cancer in the UK occurs because of genes which have been inherited from either mother or father. Several genes are thought to be involved but the most significant seems to be the BRCA1 gene. Having this gene mutation confers a lifetime risk of 80% of developing breast cancer and a 40-60% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. A related gene mutation, BRCA2 is associated with a higher risk of several cancers including ovarian, the risk of which is increased by 20-30%, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and male breast cancer. Approximately 1 in 400 people in the UK have mutations in in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that can cause cancer.
Doing a family tree with your doctor can be helpful in finding out whether you are at increased risk of breast cancer because of your family history. Women who have the following family history benefit from being referred to a specialist for further management:
- Having one first-degree female (mother, sister, daughter) relative diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 years.
- Having one first-degree male (father, brother, son) relative diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
- Having one first-degree relative with bilateral breast cancer where the first breast cancer was diagnosed under the age of 50 years.
- Having two first-degree relatives (grandparent, grandchildren, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, half-brother or half-sister), or one first-degree andone second-degree relative, diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
- Having one first-degree or second-degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer at any age andone first-degree or second-degree relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age (one of these should be a first-degree relative).
- Three first-degree or second-degree relatives diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
Although family history is very important in the development of breast cancer most women who develop breast cancer have no family history of it. It is therefore important that all women are breast aware. Breast self-examination should ideally be done at the beginning of your menstrual cycle about four times per year. Start by inspecting the breasts in front of the mirror. Look for any changes in colour or texture of the skin. Next press your hands into your hips to look for any puckering, or tethering, of the skin which can signify and underlying lump. Then, place one hand behind you head and use the flats of your fingers of the other hand to feel for any lumps in a circular fashion. If you feel any lumps then you should be examined by a doctor.
Other factors can also be important in reducing the risk of breast cancer:
- Breast cancer screening is being extended to include women between the ages of 47 and 73. Breast cancer screening has been shown to reduce mortality from breast cancer by 15%.
- Alcohol has been shown to be associated with a small increased risk of breast cancer.
- Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight have both been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
- Having children earlier and having more children is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.
- Breastfeeding has been shown to have a small protective effect against breast cancer.
Knowing your family can play an important role in preventing breast cancer. However, most breast cancers are not related to family history, so not everyone should rush to have genetic testing.
Dr. Hugh Coyne