How much do you know about your mom's health? What about her mom's? Or your dad's mom's? A genetic predisposition seriously ups your own cancer risk. What's more, while only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are hereditary, they can be way more aggressive than non-inherited types. What you find might be scary, but as Angelina Jolie proved, you'll still have risk-reducing options. Here, your pressing gene questions, answered.
How do I know if I inherited a high breast-cancer risk?
A family history of breast or ovarian cancer is the biggest red flag. The closer the affected relativeÃ¢â‚¬”and the younger she was when diagnosedÃ¢â‚¬”the more alert you should be.
Oh no! There's a bunch of breast cancer in my family. Now what?
Talk to your M.D. about a blood test to check for gene mutations. Everyone (yes, men too!) carries the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes; they keep your cells from making mistakes while dividing and reproducing. But if you inherit a faulty copy, it can raise your lifetime breast-cancer risk to as much as 87 percent. A handful of other genes have also been linked to heightened risk. If you choose to get tested, see a genetic counselor first for the full 411.
What if I test positive for a gene mutation?
You could follow Angie's lead and get a preventive mastectomy, which would plummet your breast-cancer risk to around 3 percent. It's a big step that requires lots of thought. You could also enroll in an early-detection screening program: annual mammograms and breast MRIs, plus clinical breast exams every six to 12 months.
If I test negative, am I in the clear?
Not completely. The BRCA genes are only one set of potential risk biomarkers; researchers may uncover many more. If breast cancer runs in your family, you should still consider an early-detection program. And you can lower your chances of ever having the disease by following the risk-reducing tips on these pages.
Sources: Judy Garber, M.D., M.P.H., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Karen Brown, cancer genetic counselor, The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai