breast cancer risk levels

Knowing your family health history can help you predict your breast cancer risk.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of this disease which affects mainly women. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the developed world, with cancers caused by infections such as the HPV virus being more common in middle- and low-income countries.

Scientific research and better screening methods have greatly improved our knowledge of breast cancer, and survival rates for those affected. If breast cancer is detected early, the five year survival rate is 98% according to the National Cancer Institute.

Know your risk level

There are three levels of breast and ovarian cancer risk: normal, increased, and high risk. The average woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is one in eight (12 percent) and 1 in 67 (1.5 percent) for ovarian cancer. You are at this risk simply for being a woman. Also, if you have no close family members with a history of these cancers, and no history of abnormal biopsy findings you will be classed as normal risk.

Women with the second level of risk are those with a mother, aunt, or sister with a history of breast or ovarian cancer. Especially if more than one family member has been affected. Women who have ever had an abnormal breast biopsy result or chest radiation, also fall into this risk category. For women with increased risk, the chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer is nearly doubled: 25 percent chance of developing breast cancer and 5.5 percent chance of ovarian cancer. Doctors may advise you to start screening measures earlier or to have additional screenings such as MRIs.

Women classed as high risk have some kind of genetic involvement. A diagnosed genetic mutation such as BRCA 1 or 2 mutations, or one of the several other mutations already identified by researchers. The risk for women in this category greatly increases: up to 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, and 54 percent of getting ovarian cancer.

For women who wish to find out more about their risk level, the best place to start is by gathering a family health history. By talking to relatives and finding out whether any close family member have had breast or ovarian cancer you can help determine your risk. Speak to family on both sides, and ask questions about the age they were first diagnosed, and the type of cancer they had, recommends Everyday Health.

Screening recommendations

This history taking isn’t always easy, or even possible, language-barriers, immigration, or adoption are just some of the factors that can get in the way. Although it can be scary you should remember that all risk levels are manageable. The frequency of screenings depends on where you live, and your age, as well as your risk level.

In the USA, women aged 40 and above are recommended to have a mammogram and clinical breast exam every year. Women in the 20-40 age group should have a clinical breast exam every three years. Doctors also recommend a breast self-exam every month beginning in your twenties. The bottom line is that all women are at risk from breast and ovarian cancer, but being forewarned is forearmed and knowing your family history can definitely help.