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 increased risk for developing these and other types of cancer.
Talk with your doctor about genetic counseling and genetic testing.
Genetic counseling and genetic testing can help you understand your risk for certain types of cancer that can run in families.
Doctors don’t recommend genetic testing for all women. But you may want to talk about testing with your doctor if you have:
- A family member who had breast cancer before age 50
- A family member who had cancer in both breasts
- A family member who had both breast cancer and ovarian cancer
- A male family member who had breast cancer
- 2 or more family members who had breast cancer or ovarian cancer
- Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish heritage
You may also want to ask about genetic testing if you've already had breast or ovarian cancer.
Genetic testing can’t tell you whether or not you'll get cancer – or whether you'll get cancer a second time – but it can show if you have a genetic change that increases your risk. If you do, you and your doctor can discuss options for managing your risk.
The Basics: 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.
What is genetic testing?
Genetic tests help doctors look for certain harmful mutations (changes) in genes that get passed down in families.
If you have one of these mutations in certain genes, like 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 also be at increased risk for developing some other kinds of cancer.
To learn more, check out:
The Basics: Managing Risk
Talk with your doctor about early screening for breast cancer.
Some women with an increased risk of breast cancer start getting screened at a younger age – or get screenings more often than women with normal risk. This can help catch breast cancer early, when it's easier to treat. Talk with your doctor about when and how often to get screened.
Ask if medicine or surgery could lower your breast cancer risk.
Scientists are 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.
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.
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. Share the information with your doctor or nurse.
Take this list of questions about genetic testing to your next doctor’s appointment.
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?
The Affordable Care Act requires most health insurance plans to cover these services for women at higher risk of getting breast cancer:
Counseling about genetic testing for BRCA mutations
Counseling about breast cancer chemoprevention
Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get counseling at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to learn more. For information about other preventive services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
Take Action: 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?
- What are my chances of having a mutated (changed) gene that could increase my risk for cancer?
- Besides mutated genes, what else can increase my risk for breast and ovarian cancer?
- If I decide not to do genetic testing, what types of cancer screenings are recommended to check for breast and ovarian cancer?
- If I get a genetic test, who will be able to see my test results?
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 just make me more worried about getting sick? Or will I consider taking action to lower my risk?
- Will I share the test results with my spouse or partner? My children and other relatives? Family and friends?
- What will people say when I tell them about my results?
- Are my children and other relatives (like siblings) ready to learn new information about their risk of getting cancer?
Take Action: 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 tested for breast cancer.
If you're age 50 to 74, get tested for breast cancer every 2 years. If you're age 40 to 49, talk with your doctor about when and how often to get tested.
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 October 15, 2020
This information on family history of breast and ovarian cancer was adapted from materials from the National Cancer Institute.
Rebecca Chasan, Ph.D.
Chief, Science Writing and Review Branch
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health