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Breast Cancer Basics
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Risk Factors

Who Can Develop Breast Cancer? • Breast Cancer Genes


Who Can Develop Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with over 200,000 new cases being diagnosed every year. Who is more likely to get breast cancer? Sad to say, we still don't know what causes breast cancer, or who will get it.

There are certain conditions, called risk factors that do slightly increase the risk of getting breast cancer. These include starting menstrual periods at a very early age, not having children until after age 30, or going through menopause late. Breast cancer in your mother, sister or daughter may also increase your risk. Breast cancer in two or more first degree relatives definitely makes the risk greater.

But the vast majority of women who develop breast cancer have no risks factors, except one. Being a female with breasts. And that means risk factors or not, no woman is safe from breast cancer.

Women with breast cancer should suggest to their close female relatives that they consult their physicians about their own risk factors, and begin an effective program of early detection.


Breast Cancer Genes
An important step in understanding breast cancer has been the discovery of the genes that are linked to this disease—BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Genes are specific areas on chromosomes (strands of genetic material contained in our cells) that program the cell with information for growth and function. Scientists found that damage to specific genes on Chromosome 17 correlates with an increased incidence of hereditary-type breast cancer.

There are tests that can detect damage to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. But widespread use of this test to identify women at high risk is being debated because the benefits and consequences of knowing the results are not clear. For example, a "negative" gene test does not mean that the gene is normal. Rather, it indicates that a mutation has not been found. A negative test does not guarantee that the woman will not get breast cancer. Today we can test for two genes, but many more will probably be discovered in the future.

Conversely, a "positive" test does not mean a woman will develop breast cancer, but it does open the door to a variety of problems if the woman's insurance company or employer were to obtain this information.

The best advice for a woman with breast cancer is to suggest to her relatives that they consult a qualified risk counselor before undergoing any genetic testing.


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