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Breast cancer in the family

Watch Judith Maher’s story of her daughter Maryanne who was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 30. Judith was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer, as was her sister:

You may be surprised to know that most women who develop breast cancer do not have a close relative with the disease. While women can’t "inherit breast cancer”, a small number of women do inherit a genetic predisposition to the disease.

Approximately 5% of breast cancers occur in women who have inherited a gene abnormality from their mother or father. We all have many genes that do many different things. Some genes help prevent cancer and if a woman inherits an abnormality in one of those genes she can be less protected against cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that help protect us against cancer when they are working properly. Women who inherit an abnormality (mutation) in one of these genes have an increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian and fallopian tube cancer. While having a breast cancer gene mutation increases your risk of developing breast cancer, it does not mean that you will definitely get breast cancer.

Abnormalities in BRCA1 or BRCA2 occur in about 1 in 400 (0.2 per cent) Australian women, but they are more common in some ethnic groups – for example they occur in about 1 in 40 (2.5 per cent)  people with Ashkenazi Jewish (Eastern Europe) heritage.

There are also  other, even less common, inherited gene abnormalities that increase the risk of developing breast and other cancers.

Most (but not all) women who have one of these inherited gene abnormalities will have a family history of breast cancer, but most women with a family history of breast cancer do not have one of these gene abnormalities. It’s important to remember that gene abnormalities  can  be passed through the father's side of the family, so the family history on that side is just as important as on your mother’s side.

Is breast cancer in your family?

You can use the iPrevent breast cancer risk tool to determine the significance of your cancer family history.

If you are at all worried about the risk of breast cancer in your family, you may like to talk to your family doctor (GP) or local family cancer clinic.

Family cancer clinics

Attending a Family Cancer Clinic can help you sort out the relevance of your cancer family history. If it is appropriate for you, they can arrange for you and your family to have genetic testing. This can determine whether you or another family member carries a  gene abnormality that increases cancer risk (such as in BRCA1 or BRCA2). You will have access to counselling before and after testing.

Once your cancer risk is assessed, Family cancer clinics can also help you draw up a health plan to manage your risk. This may include changing lifestyle factors, regularly monitoring your breasts for any changes (with mammography and sometimes special tests like MRI), taking medication or having surgery. Decisions about which options you want to explore are always up to you and Family Cancer Clinicians are very experienced in helping you to make decisions that are right for you as an individual and fit with your personal beliefs and values. .

There is no charge for a consultation  at a family cancer clinic. Genetic testing is free for women who meet certain family history criteria. Some women who don’t meet the criteria may choose to self-fund a genetic test, which costs several hundred dollars. Family cancer Clinics  operate through public hospitals and some private hospitals.. Your GP can refer you to a clinic in your area, or you can telephone a clinic yourself to make an appointment. 

For more information about family cancer clinics, visit the Cancer Council Australia website or phone the Cancer Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.

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