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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Introduction


The association between HRT and breast cancer risk among women with a family history of breast cancer has not been consistent; some studies suggest risk is particularly elevated among women with a family history, while others have not found evidence for an interaction between these factors.[28,29,30,31,32,23] The increased risk of breast cancer associated with HRT use in the large meta-analysis did not differ significantly between subjects with and without a family history.[32] The WHI study has not reported analyses stratified on breast cancer family history, and subjects have not been systematically tested for BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations.[25] Short-term use of hormones for treatment of menopausal symptoms appears to confer little or no breast cancer risk.[23,33] The effect of HRT on breast cancer risk among carriers of BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations has been studied only in the context of bilateral risk-reducing oophorectomy, in which short-term replacement does not appear to reduce the protective effect of oophorectomy on breast cancer risk.[34] (Refer to the Hormone replacement therapy in BRCA1/BRCA2 mutation carriers section of this summary for more information.)

Radiation exposure

Observations in survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in women who have received therapeutic radiation treatments to the chest and upper body document increased breast cancer risk as a result of radiation exposure. The significance of this risk factor in women with a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer is unclear.

Preliminary data suggest that increased sensitivity to radiation could be a cause of cancer susceptibility in carriers of BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations,[35,36,37,38] and in association with germline ATM and TP53 mutations.[39,40]

The possibility that genetic susceptibility to breast cancer occurs via a mechanism of radiation sensitivity raises questions about radiation exposure. It is possible that diagnostic radiation exposure, including mammography, poses more risk in genetically susceptible women than in women of average risk. Therapeutic radiation could also pose carcinogenic risk. A cohort study of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers treated with breast-conserving therapy, however, showed no evidence of increased radiation sensitivity or sequelae in the breast, lung, or bone marrow of mutation carriers.[41] Conversely, radiation sensitivity could make tumors in women with genetic susceptibility to breast cancer more responsive to radiation treatment. Studies examining the impact of radiation exposure, including, but not limited to, mammography, in BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers have had conflicting results.[42,43,44,45,46] A large European study showed a dose-response relationship of increased risk with total radiation exposure, but this was primarily driven by nonmammographic radiation exposure before age 20 years.[46] (Refer to the Mammography section in the High-Penetrance Breast and/or Ovarian Cancer Susceptibility Genes section of this summary for more information about radiation.)

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