"It's so important to know your family history so that you can act on it. .. I was 27 (when diagnosed) and knew of no previous family history. .. While I was having chemotherapy, my mother (45) was diagnosed. We've since found out my grandmother died from ovarian cancer in her 40s - we were always told it was cervical. What a significant mistake!" -- Vanessa
You may be surprised to know that 90-95% of all breast cancers have nothing to do with family history.
However, around 5-10% of breast cancers occur in women whose families have a gene fault (or mutation) that is passed down through the family and puts them at greater risk of developing breast cancer.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are two mutations known to be associated with hereditary breast cancer. Women who carry these mutations can also be at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
It is suspected there are other gene mutations that have not yet been identified but that may increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer.
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer - that is two or more first-degree (mother, sister, daughter) or second-degree (grandmother, aunt, niece) relatives on the same side of the family who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, there is a chance your family may carry a breast cancer gene mutation.
While breast cancer is considered a woman's disease, it can affect men and the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can be passed through the father's side of the family as well as the mother's.
While women and men who carry one of the BRCA genes, or have a strong family history of breast cancer, are at higher risk of developing breast cancer than people in the general population, this does not mean that they will get breast cancer. It means that their risk is greater than that of the general population.
If you are concerned about the risk of breast cancer in your family, you may want to talk to your doctor or contact a Family Cancer Centre for further information and advice.
Family Cancer Clinics
Family Cancer Clinics provide counselling and information for families with a strong family history of cancer, including breast cancer.
They can help women at increased risk of developing breast cancer to draw up a health plan to regularly monitor their breasts for changes. They can also arrange genetic testing for families with a strong family history to determine if any family members carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. Counselling is provided before and after testing.
The clinics are conducted through the public health system and there is no charge to families for consultations or for genetic testing.
"I'm so thankful I was tested for the gene. My breast cancer was picked up early due to surveillance which otherwise would not have commenced until I turned 40. By then, it would have been too late." -- Kerri
For more information about Family Cancer Clinics, or to find a Clinic near you, visit the Cancer Council Australia website or phone the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.
- Read the Ask The Expert article in issue 62 of The Beacon magazine, where Assoc Prof Judy Kirk discusses breast cancer in families.
- The Family history and hereditary breast cancer fact sheet explains when family history may be important in breast cancer risk.
- BCNAs Family history and hereditary breast cancer position statement outlines the issues for many women in this situation. This position statement has been informed by our background paper.
- The personal stories in this section are about living with a family history of breast cancer.
- Read the latest research about Family history and hereditary breast cancer.
- Cancer Australia's Guide for women with early breast cancer in My Journey Kit has more information on breast cancer in the family.
- Cancer Australia's website includes a risk calculator where you can calculate your risk of developing breast cancer.
- The NSW Centre for Genetics Education website has information about genetic testing, including an information and decision aid titled Understanding genetic tests for breast and ovarian cancer that runs in the family.
- The Westmead Breast Cancer Institute has a Family history of breast cancer brochure which you can order free of charge through their website.
- The FORCE website has more information about family history and hereditary breast cancer and you can sign up to receive their regular ebulletins.
Digital Storytelling Project
One cancer family
In the video below, Judith Maher tells the story of her daughter Maryanne who was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 30. Judith was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer, as was her sister. Judith tells of the support she received from her adult son during her recovery period.