November 2019

Should You Be Tested for the Breast Cancer Gene?

Women with a mother, sister, or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer have nearly twice the risk of developing the disease. When breast cancer strikes in families, particularly at younger ages, healthcare providers often suspect genes are to blame.

Healthcare provider talking with a younger woman in an exam room

Genes gone wrong

Between 5% and 10% of breast cancers are caused by genetic problems. Two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—are the most common genes responsible for hereditary breast cancer. Normally, these genes help keep cells from growing out of control. Defective genes fail at that task.

About 1 in 10 women in the general population will have breast cancer in their lifetimes. But about 7 in 10 women with defective copies of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes will develop breast cancer by age 80. These women also face a higher chance for ovarian cancer. 

Consider genetic counseling

Some breast cancers linked with genes affect many members of a family. But not every woman who has a family history of inherited breast cancer carries the defective gene. 

A blood test can check for mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. The results could help you make decisions about steps to reduce cancer risk. Before getting tested, talk with your healthcare provider or a genetic counselor. Such counseling can help you understand whether testing is right for you, what the benefits and risks are, and what genetic testing can and can’t tell you.

You may want to think about testing if you have:

  • Breast cancer before age 50

  • Ovarian cancer at any age

  • A blood relative with the harmful mutation

  • A family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or both

Cost for testing ranges from less than $100 to several thousand dollars and may not always be covered by insurance.


Health tip

Most breast cancer is not linked to genetics. You can’t control some risk factors such as older age. But you can fight back by exercising regularly, staying at a healthy weight, and limiting alcohol to one drink a day. 

Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2019
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