Health Conditions

Talk with a Doctor if Breast or Ovarian Cancer Runs in Your Family

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The Basics

Overview

If your family has a history of breast or ovarian cancer, talk with your doctor or nurse about it. You may be at higher risk of developing these and other types of cancer — or getting them again.

Talk with your doctor about genetic counseling and genetic testing.

Genetic counseling and genetic testing for mutations (changes) in certain genes — called BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes — can help you understand your risk of certain types of cancer that can run in families.

Doctors don’t recommend genetic testing for all women. Before a doctor recommends testing, you’ll usually have what’s called a risk assessment — you’ll meet with a genetic counselor or another professional to talk about things like:

  • People in your family who have had cancer
  • What kind of cancer they had
  • How old they were when they were diagnosed with cancer

That’s because certain patterns of cancer in 1 family — for example, breast cancer at an early age or multiple cases of breast and ovarian cancer — may suggest a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. 

Counseling and Testing

What is genetic counseling?

Genetic counseling is when a trained health professional talks with you about your family health history and helps you decide if genetic testing makes sense for you. Counseling can also help you understand your results if you decide to get tested.

Find out more about genetic counseling for breast and ovarian cancer.

What is genetic testing?

Genetic tests help doctors look for certain harmful mutations in genes that can run in families. Genetic testing can’t tell you whether or not you’ll get cancer, but it can show if you have a genetic mutation that increases your risk.

If you have one of these mutations in certain genes, including BRCA1 or BRCA2, you're more likely to develop breast cancer and ovarian cancer. You're also more likely to develop these cancers at a younger age, and you may be at higher risk of developing some other kinds of cancer.

The good news is you and your doctor can discuss options for managing your risk.

To learn more, check out:

Managing Risk

Talk with your doctor about a breast cancer screening strategy that’s right for you.

Some women who have genetic mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer may choose a different screening strategy than what’s recommended for women with normal risk. For example, some women choose to:

  • Start getting screened at a younger age
  • Get screened more often
  • Get screened with both mammograms and MRIs (a type of scan that creates detailed images of areas inside the body)  

The goal is to catch breast cancer early, when it may be easier to treat. Talk with your doctor about your screening strategy.

Ask if surgery or medicine could lower your breast cancer risk.

Some women with an increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer can have surgery to lower their risk. Learn more about surgery to reduce breast cancer risk.

Scientists are also studying certain medicines to find out if they can lower breast cancer risk in women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Taking medicines to lower cancer risk is called chemoprevention. Learn more about medicines that may reduce breast cancer risk.

There are side effects and possible harms from both surgery and chemoprevention, so it’s important to talk with your doctor or nurse about your cancer risk and the different options.

Take Action

Talk with Your Doctor

Start by talking with a doctor or nurse about your cancer risk.

Talk with a doctor about your family health history.

Use this family health history tool to keep track of the diseases that run in your family. Then share the information with your doctor or nurse. 

Ask about ways to lower your risk.

All women can take steps to lower their risk for breast or ovarian cancer. Ask your doctor for advice. You can also learn more by checking out these resources:

What about cost?

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover these services for women at higher risk of getting breast cancer:

  • Counseling about genetic testing for BRCA mutations
  • Counseling about breast cancer chemoprevention

Many plans will also cover genetic testing when it’s recommended by a doctor. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get counseling and testing at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company and ask about both genetic counseling and genetic testing. 

If you don't have insurance, you may still be able to get free or low-cost services. Find a health center near you and ask about genetic counseling and testing

To learn more, check out these resources:

Ask Questions

Make a list of questions for the doctor or genetic counselor.

You may want to ask your doctor or a genetic counselor these questions:

  • Based on my health history and my family’s health history, do you recommend genetic testing for me?
  • If I decide not to do genetic testing, what types of cancer screenings are recommended to check for breast and ovarian cancer?
  • If genetic testing shows I have a mutated gene, will I be able to take action to lower my risk?

Take this list of questions about genetic testing to your appointment to get more ideas for questions to ask.

Before you get tested, think about how you may feel.

Your doctor or counselor can help you think about what you will learn and how the results will affect you and your family

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Will finding out about a genetic mutation make me more worried about getting sick? Or will I feel better knowing I may be able to take action to lower my risk?
  • If I have a mutated gene, what would it mean for my children's health?
  • Will I share the test results with my children and other relatives (like siblings) who could have the same gene mutation? 

Get Regular Checkups

You and your doctor can decide whether genetic counseling and testing makes sense for you. But whatever you decide, remember that all women still need regular cancer screenings and checkups.

Get screened for breast cancer.

If you're age 50 to 74, get mammograms every 2 years. If you're age 40 to 49, talk with your doctor about when and how often to get mammograms. Learn more about breast cancer screening

And if a genetic test has shown that you’re at higher risk for breast cancer, you may want to start getting mammograms — or other types of screening tests — earlier. Your doctor can help you decide what’s right for you.

Get your well-woman visit.

Get a well-woman visit every year. Use this visit to talk with your doctor or nurse about important screenings and services to help you stay healthy.

Content last updated July 29, 2022

Reviewer Information

This information on family history of breast and ovarian cancer was adapted from materials from the National Cancer Institute.

Reviewed by:
Rebecca Chasan, Ph.D.
Chief, Science Writing and Review Branch
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health