An estimated one in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point during her lifetime. Are you at risk?

Research has identified gene mutations that can greatly increase risk for breast cancer in some families. For example, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (“BRCA” is short for “BReast CAncer”) produce tumor suppressor proteins, which repair damaged DNA. When either of these genes mutate, your cells may grow and divide too quickly, leading to cancer.

While relatively few people have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, approximately 5-10 percent of breast cancers occur as a result of inherited gene mutations.

Should I get tested?

Most people don’t actually need testing. Instead, you should evaluate your family’s health history with your doctor or a genetic counselor to decide whether you may be predisposed to a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Genetic counseling is covered by the Affordable Care Act, and most people who are at high risk of having a mutation will have the testing covered by insurance.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women who have a family history of breast, ovarian, fallopian tube or peritoneal cancers consider testing. If you or your family has these occurrences, you may be at higher risk of a mutation:

  • Cancer in both of a woman’s breasts
  • A breast cancer diagnosis before age 50
  • A history of both breast and ovarian cancers in the same woman or family
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
  • Male breast cancer cases
  • A relative with a confirmed BRCA mutation

If your family has breast cancer cases occurring later in life, after age 70, they’re most likely not linked to a BRCA mutation.

What if I get screened?

Overall, about 55 percent of women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer.

If the mutation is identified, your doctor may recommend more frequent screening, such as mammograms or breast MRIs, beginning at a younger age. Your doctor may also consider medication or risk-reducing (prophylactic) surgery to remove breast tissue or the ovaries before cancer can grow.

What else can I do?

Take steps to live a healthier lifestyle. Eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, manage your stress and practice monthly self-exams to monitor for lumps. Starting at age 45, have a mammogram every year, and work with your physician to determine if you need additional screening measures.

If you are interested in a genetic counseling assessment, make an appointment now with a Keck Medicine of USC physician near you. For more information, see the USC Norris Cancer Genetics web site: http://cancer.keckmedicine.org/patients/cancer-programs/cancer-genetics/