According to a study reported by The National Institute of Health, “Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women worldwide.”
When it comes to evaluating your own susceptibility to the disease, there are some risk factors you can control. These include not smoking, watching your diet, controlling your alcohol consumption and getting regular exercise.
However, there are other factors you have little or no control over. One of those is the family into which you were born.
The Hereditary Risk
We know that up to 25 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary. That means that the risk runs in your bloodline. What that doesn’t mean is that you have no control over whether you develop breast cancer. We’ll get into more detail on that point later. What it does mean, however, is that you need to take additional precautions if you are at a higher-than-average risk due to your family history.
Now let’s look at three family history indicators you need to be aware of so you can take preventive measures if necessary.
A first-degree family history of breast cancer.
- Your “first-degree family” includes your parents, sibling and children. Researchers have found that those with one first-degree family member who have been diagnosed with breast cancer have about double the risk of also developing the disease. This risk becomes a fivefold increase if two members of this family unit have had breast cancer.
The age of diagnosis within your family.
- Keep in mind that some families live longer than others. If your first-degree family includes many women living in their advanced years, there might well be more cases of breast cancer in your bloodline than in families whose members tend to die earlier from other causes. That’s why this second point is important. According to this study, your risk is further increased if a first-degree relative is diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 50.
Your family members have developed certain other cancers.
- While the strongest hereditary link to your own risk of breast cancer is with others within your first-degree family, other cancers within the expanded family unit can also heighten your risk. This means we’re now talking about aunts and uncles and cousins, in addition to your first-degree family
Check out this family history checklist from Bright Pink, a breast and ovarian cancer support and advocacy group, for more information.
Offset Family History
Reading this post up to this point might make you feel pretty hopeless. It looks like your family ties have virtually set you up to get breast cancer and you have no say in the matter. But there’s really a lot more you can do than you think.
Start with paying attention to the many risk factors you can control by maintaining your healthy lifestyle or making sensible changes.
Beyond that, you can start with the following:
- Self-examine your breasts monthly for lumps
- Get an annual checkup and breast exam from your doctor
- Get a mammogram every year from the age of 40
Some women have even perceived the risk of developing breast cancer to be so high based on family history that they’ve chosen to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy. This is the voluntary removal of the breasts as a preventive treatment.
See Your Doctor
But the first and most important action you should take if your family history points toward a higher risk of developing the disease is to bring that fact to the attention of your physician.
Once I know the facts, I can work with my patients to develop a course of action that will offset family history as much as possible. So don’t worry about your risk. Instead, take action! See your doctor regularly and minimize that risk through a few simple steps
In other words, put your health in your own good hands. Con