Published: Mar. 23, 2010
Updated: Dec. 3, 2010
By June Spence
Her sense of humor. Her impeccable timing. All 12 place settings of her wedding china. Of all the things you may hope to inherit from your mother, breast cancer isn’t one of them. But if she had it, aren’t you more likely to get it?
Not necessarily, says oncologist Victoria Seewaldt, MD, who directs Duke’s High-Risk Breast Clinic. “Breast cancer is a disease of aging and of just being female. Aging puts all women at risk. Having a mother who had breast cancer doesn’t automatically increase your likelihood -- a lot depends on her age at its onset, how many other relatives had breast cancer, and what type of cancer it is.”
The best way for a woman to determine her personal risk of breast cancer is to talk with her physician. Some of the things that might signal high risk include:
For women who are determined to be at high risk for breast cancer, Duke’s clinic offers screening and individualized prevention plans that may include medications such as tamoxifen. “We also work on diet and exercise,” notes Seewaldt. “We think that’s very important.
“It’s very easy, very human if you have a mother who has had breast cancer to think it’s inevitable,” says Seewaldt, “but at the High-Risk Breast Clinic we work really hard to help women understand they’re not automatically fated to get it.”
A mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes is the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer, though it accounts for only around 5 percent of all breast cancers, says Seewaldt.
The presence of the mutated gene can be detected through testing, so women with a strong family history of breast cancer may opt to find out if they have it, but Seewaldt says that decision is a very personal and individual one.
“We do offer testing, but before that we urge genetic counseling to help women decide if the test is appropriate for them.” Genetic counseling is also crucial in helping people interpret the results and make decisions about what measures to take, if any.