Note: This is a guest post from BrightPink.org.
Collecting family health history is an important piece of a greater puzzle that influences your health over the course of your lifetime. It can help you and your health provider tell a story and spot patterns. Sometimes, those patterns can be indicative of a genetic link. Sometimes, they are influenced by other biological and lifestyle factors. In any case, how do you know when it’s time to figure out if a pattern exists because of your genetics?
At Bright Pink, we focus on risk of breast and ovarian cancer. And we know that for these cancers specifically, 75% of cancer diagnoses have no identifiable family history or genetic predisposition. That’s why it is so crucial to focus on paying attention to lifestyle factors like how much alcohol you consume or your bodyweight to help reduce your risk. But for the other 25% of individuals with familial risk or inherited genetic risk, knowing your family health history and having the knowledge of how to act on it is so important.
Some people diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer only have increased risk due to their family history. If you have a first-degree relative (mother, grandmother, or sister) who has had cancer, you are at increased risk. But, this doesn’t automatically mean that you have a genetic predisposition to these cancers.
Health providers have to look deeper into your family health history to look for clues that indicate your risk could be related to your genetics.
When to Test
When you’re collecting family history, it’s crucial to get information from both your mother’s AND your father’s side. A common misconception is that women can’t inherit risk for diseases that primarily affect women through their father. This is untrue.
And, when you’re having these conversations, it’s important to ask who in your family had cancer, when they were diagnosed, and what type of cancer they had. If you are trying to pinpoint your risk of breast cancer, you shouldn’t only ask about breast cancer. Other cancers can be “related” in terms of risk.
In terms of breast and ovarian cancer risk, a health provider should refer you to a genetic counselor if you have a personal or family history of:
- Breast cancer by age 40
- Breast cancer at age 50 or younger with a close relative with ovarian cancer or breast cancer by age 50 or male breast cancer
- Breast cancer at any age with 2 or more close relatives with breast cancer and/or pancreatic cancer at any age
- Breast cancer in both breasts
- Ovarian cancer, primary peritoneal cancer or fallopian tube cancer at any age
- Women with a close relative with a genetic mutation linked to breast and ovarian cancer
- Triple-negative breast cancer
- Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish ancestry with history of breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer diagnosed at any age
Explore Your Genetics
Understanding the factors in your family health history can provide you with empowering and actionable information. But, hearing the words “genetic testing” can be intimidating for many people.
ExploreYourGenetics.org is a one-stop-shop to help address all of your questions about genetic counseling and testing for breast and ovarian cancer. This site can be a resource to help you understand your options, understand how your genes can be connected to cancer, or simply understand the rapidly-changing field of genetics if you are curious and want to know more.
Knowledge is power, and the more information you have about your family health history, the more you can make truly personalized health decisions that have the ability to positively affect your health in the future.