Some people have a higher risk of developing breast cancer because of their family history. But what does this actually mean? We answer some of the most common questions about having a family history of breast cancer.
If you do have a family history, it doesn’t mean you will definitely get breast cancer, but it does mean your risk may be higher than for people without a family history. We cover some of the main questions about family history and breast cancer.
I’ve heard that family history is the main cause of breast cancer… is this true?
Most women in the UK have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. If you have a family history of breast cancer, this means that you may have a higher than average risk of developing the disease. But only a small number of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history – both being a woman and being over 50 are bigger risk factors.
You might be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer if:
- A number of blood relatives in your immediate family (parents, children or siblings) or extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews or half-siblings) on either side have been affected by breast cancer or ovarian cancer
- Any immediate relatives have been diagnosed under the age of 40, or if any men in your family have been diagnosed with male breast cancer
- You have blood relatives who have had breast cancer and are of a Jewish background, as some people who have Jewish ancestry are more likely to carry faulty genes
For each 100 women with breast cancer in the UK, about 10 will have a significant family history. Of these, about five will have a fault in a gene known to be linked to breast cancer (e.g. BRCA1, BRCA2 or TP53) and about five will have no known genetic reason for their family’s increased risk.
I’m worried about my family history of breast cancer… what can I do?
If you are concerned about your risk of breast cancer and family history, you can visit your GP. They will be able to look at the patterns of cancers in your family to see whether you might be at an increased risk of breast cancer. If they think you might be, they will refer you to specialist services. Find out more about how genes affect our risk of developing breast cancer.
My GP has referred me to a specialist… how do they help?
If your GP thinks you may have a family history, they will refer you to a specialist.
This team can:
- Estimate your risk of developing breast cancer. This is called a risk assessment
- Help you get support. It can be difficult or worrying to look into your family history, but your specialist can provide or arrange counselling before or after your risk assessment
- Help you understand your situation. They can clearly explain to you your risk of developing breast cancer, and help you decide what to do next
I know I have a family history… how can I take action and manage my risk?
If your specialist finds that you are at an increased risk of breast cancer, they will give you some options to manage your risk.
These can include:
- Having earlier or more frequent breast screening and making sure you’re breast aware
- Making sure you’re leading a healthy lifestyle, such as limiting the amount of alcohol you drink, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active
- Having risk-reducing surgery or taking risk-reducing drugs
These options depend on your risk level, your age, your medical history and importantly, your own preferences. Deciding on the next step can be a difficult decision, but your specialist can help you make the right decision for you.
Our family history guide has more detailed information about risk, how to manage it and how to get support.