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

The Basics

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 for developing these and other types of cancer.

Talk with your doctor about genetic counseling and 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 it with your doctor if you have a family member who had:

  • Breast cancer before age 50
  • Cancer in both breasts
  • Both breast and ovarian cancer

You may also want to talk with your doctor about genetic testing if you have:

  • A male family member who had breast cancer
  • Two or more family members who had breast or ovarian cancer
  • Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish heritage

Genetic testing can’t tell you if you will get cancer or not, but it can show if you have a genetic change that puts you at higher risk. If so, you and your doctor can discuss options for managing your risk.

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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.  

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

What is genetic testing?

Genetic tests help doctors look for mutations (changes) in your genes. If you have a mutation in certain genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, you are more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer. You may also be more likely to develop some other kinds of cancer.

To learn more, check out:

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The Basics: Managing Risk

Medicine or surgery may help lower your breast cancer risk.

Some women with a higher risk of getting breast cancer can take drugs (medicine) that may help lower their risk. This is called chemoprevention (“KEE-moh-pree-VEN-shun”). 

Scientists are still studying these drugs to find out if they can lower breast cancer risk in women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Learn more about drugs that can reduce breast cancer risk.

Some women with a higher risk of breast or ovarian cancer can get surgery to lower their risk. Learn more about surgery to reduce breast cancer risk.

There are side effects and possible risks from both surgery and medicines, so it’s important to talk with your doctor or nurse about your cancer risk and your prevention options.

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Take Action!

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 at these websites:

What about cost?

The Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010, requires most health insurance plans to cover these services for women at higher risk of getting breast cancer:

  • Counseling about BRCA genetic testing
  • 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 services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.

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Take Action: Ask Questions

Make a list of questions for the doctor or counselor.

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

  • Based on my family’s health history, do you recommend genetic testing?
  • 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?
  • How will people I tell about my results react to the news?
  • Are my children and other relatives (like siblings) ready to learn new information about their risk of getting cancer?
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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 are age 50 to 74, get tested for breast cancer every 2 years. If you are 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.

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