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 cancer. Doctors don’t recommend genetic testing for all women, but you may want to consider it 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 consider genetic testing if you have:

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

Genetic testing can’t tell you if you will get cancer or not, but it can show if you have a higher risk. If you do, 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. Some diseases, such as breast and ovarian cancer, can run in families. Genetic counseling can help you decide whether to get genetic tests.

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: Medicine Options

Medicine may help lower your breast cancer risk.

If you have a higher risk of getting breast cancer, you can take drugs (medicine) that may help lower your risk. This is called chemoprevention (“KEE-moh-pree-VEN-shun”).

Two drugs approved by the FDA, called tamoxifen and raloxifene, may help lower your risk of getting breast cancer. Scientists are still studying these drugs to find out if they can lower breast cancer risk in women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.

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

Learn more about drugs that can reduce breast cancer risk.

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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.

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 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

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Take Action: Ask Questions

Make a list of questions for the doctor.

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?

Take this list of questions about genetic testing to your next doctor’s appointment.

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Take Action: Be Prepared

Think about how you may feel.

If you are thinking about genetic testing for breast or ovarian cancer, first think about what you will learn and how the results will affect you and your family. 

Here are some questions to think about:

  • If I get tested, will I be more worried about getting sick?
  • Will I share the test results with my spouse or partner? My children? Family and friends? How will they react to the news?
  • Are my children ready to learn new information that may one day affect their health?
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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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