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What Every Woman Needs to Know about Breast and Ovarian Cancers

A little knowledge can go a long way in helping you understand your risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Once you learn your risk for these cancers, we hope you will talk to you doctor and develop a strategy to reduce your risk or detect these diseases at early, non-life-threatening stages.

Breast and Ovarian Cancer Basics

Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer starts in the breast, it is called breast cancer. About 7 out of 100 women (or 7%) will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the time they turn 70 years old.

Ovarian cancer is far less common. About 1 out of 100 women (or 1%) will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer by age 70. Though it is less common than breast cancer, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

About 5–10% of breast and 10-15% of ovarian cancers are hereditary. These hereditary breast and ovarian cancers are caused by inherited changes in genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Breast and Ovarian Cancer Basics for Young Women

While breast and ovarian cancers are most common in older women (about 89% of breast cancers occur in women older than 45 years of age), they can and do occur in younger women. There are some important differences when these cancers do affect young women:

  • Breast and ovarian cancers in young women are more likely to be hereditary (passed down through families and because of an inherited BRCA gene mutation).
  • Breast and ovarian cancers in young women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and are often more aggressive and difficult to treat.
  • Young women can face unique issues when diagnosed, including concerns about body image, fertility, finances, and feelings of isolation.

Steps You Can Take Now

Learn More About Breast and Ovarian Cancers

Every woman can benefit from learning the risk factors and symptoms of breast and ovarian cancers.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer at Any Age

If you have one or more of these factors, it does not mean you will get breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk.

Reproductive Risk Factors

  • Being younger (before age 12) when you first had your menstrual period
  • Starting menopause at a later age (after age 55)
  • Being older (after age 35) at the birth of your first child
  • Never giving birth
  • Never breastfeeding for a long duration (1 year plus)
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy

Other Risk Factors

  • Getting older
  • Personal history of breast cancer or some noncancerous breast diseases
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (ancestors from Central or Eastern Europe)
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast or chest
  • Dense breast tissue – a condition that can be diagnosed by a mammogram
  • Being overweight (increases risk for breast cancer after menopause)
  • Having a mutation in the breast cancer-related genes BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Drinking alcohol (more than one drink a day)
  • Not getting regular exercise

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. If you have any signs that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast

Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer

If you have one or more of these factors, it does not mean you will get ovarian cancer. Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk.

If you have:

  • Reached or are past middle age
  • Never given birth or had trouble getting pregnant
  • A family history of ovarian cancer (mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother)
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (ancestors from central or Eastern Europe)
  • A mutation in the breast cancer-related BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genes
  • Been diagnosed with breast, uterine, colorectal (colon), or cervical cancer or melanoma
  • Been diagnosed with endometriosis (a condition where tissue from the lining of the uterus grows elsewhere in the body)

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. See a doctor if you have any of these signs for two weeks or longer and they are not normal for you.

  • Vaginal bleeding or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you
  • Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area (the area below your stomach and between your hip bones)
  • Back pain
  • Bloating, which is when the area below your stomach swells or feels full
  • Feeling full quickly while eating
  • A change in your bathroom habits, such as constipation, diarrhea, or having to pass urine very urgently or very often

Talk to your Doctor

The next time you visit the doctor, consider talking about what you have learned about breast and ovarian cancers.

Be sure to tell your doctor about your family history of cancer (especially breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, pancreatic, and prostate cancers) and about any other risk factors you may have.

If you need help collecting and organizing your family health history, use the U.S. Surgeon General's family health history portrait, https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/.

Together, you and your doctor can develop a personalized strategy to reduce your risk.

 

Do You Know:BRCA?

Everyone has BRCA genes

BRCA stands for BReast CAncer susceptibility gene. There are two BRCA genes - BRCA1 and BRCA2. The BRCA genes are called “tumor suppressor” genes. When functioning normally, these genes help the body prevent cancer. They help keep breast, ovarian, and other types of cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way.

Everyone has BRCA genes - one of each from your mother and one from your father.

Some people have BRCA gene mutations

When certain changes or “mutations” in the BRCA genes occur, cells are more likely to divide and change rapidly, which can lead to developing cancer. Breast and ovarian cancers caused by gene mutations are called “hereditary breast and ovarian cancers”. Only about 5–10% of breast and 10-15% of ovarian cancers diagnosed in the United States are associated with BRCA mutations.

Many people believe that only mothers can pass down BRCA gene mutations to their children, but this is not true. You can inherit a mutation from either of your parents. If one of your parents or siblings carries a BRCA gene mutation, you have a 50% chance of also having the mutation.

The only way to know for certain in you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation is to have a genetic test. You should meet with a trained genetic expert (e.g., genetic counselor, advanced practice nurse in genetics) and recieve genetic counseling prior to genetic testing. Most people do not need genetic counseling and testing. A genetic test will be helpful for a small number of people who have specific patterns of cancer in their families.

Some people are at increased risk for a BRCA gene mutation

You may be at increased risk for a mutation if your family history includes any of the following:

  • Multiple relatives with breast cancer
  • Any relatives with ovarian cancer
  • Relatives diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50
  • A relative with cancer in both breasts
  • A relative who had both breast and ovarian cancers
  • A male relative with breast cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (Central or Eastern European) and any relative with breast or ovarian cancer
  • A relative with a known BRCA gene mutation

You may be at increased risk for a mutation if your personal history includes any of the following:

  • You were diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50
  • You have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, or primary peritoneal (lining of the abdomen) cancer at any age
  • You have been diagnosed with male breast cancer
  • You have been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer
  • You have been diagnosed with breast cancer more than once
  • You have been diagnosed with both breast and ovarian cancers
  • You have been diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer at any age, and you are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (Central or Eastern European)
  • You have been diagnosed with breast cancer and you have a family member with breast or ovarian cancer

A BRCA gene mutation increases cancer risk

People with BRCA gene mutations are at increased risk for developing breast, ovarian, and other cancers.

  • About 50 out of 100 women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation will develop breast cancer by the time they turn 70 years old. By comparison, only 7 out of 100 women in the general U.S. population will develop breast cancer by the time they turn 70.
  • About 30 out of 100 women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation will develop ovarian cancer by the time they turn 70 years old. Only 1 out of 100 women in the general U.S. population will develop ovarian cancer by the time they turn 70.

BRCA gene mutations may increase the risk of fallopian tube, peritoneal (lining in the abdomen), and pancreatic cancer in women. BRCA gene mutations may increase the risk of pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancer in men.

Living with a BRCA gene mutation

If you have a BRCA gene mutation, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer or to detect it earlier when treatment is most effective. Enhanced screening at an earlier age or at more frequent intervals, medicines, and risk-reducing surgeries are options to learn more about and discuss with your doctor.

If you have a BRCA gene mutation, you are not alone. There are many organizations that can help you learn more about living with a known BRCA gene mutation and to connect you with others.

Visit our Support Center for more information and resources for women at risk for BRCA gene mutations.