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Women's Health

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Are You Turning Into Your Mom?

How to cut your odds of breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression, and immune diseases -- even if your mom had them.

Breast Cancer continued...

“About 70% of women who develop breast cancer have no one in their family who’s ever had it before, at least that they know of,” says Wendy Chung, MD, who directs the clinical genetics program at Columbia University Medical Center. “We call those ‘sporadic’ cases. The other 30% of women with breast cancer have at least one person in their family who’s had the disease before: a mother, an aunt, a sister.”

As a daughter, your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer goes up nearly twofold if your mother had the disease. Within that group of women, some have an even stronger family history.

“The more relatives you have who’ve had breast cancer, the higher your risk becomes,” Chung says. “And women who inherit certain genetic mutations, such as those on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, may have a lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer of anywhere from 50% to 85%. If you inherit that mutation from your mother, there is a very strong chance that you will go on to develop breast cancer, too.”

You can also inherit a genetic predisposition to breast cancer from your father’s side of the family. “Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, my father’s mother was the one who had breast cancer, so I don’t need to worry,’” Hahn says. “No. It can run right through your dad’s side as well.”

Women who test positive for BRCA mutations usually monitor their breast health very closely, with advanced screening tools like breast MRI, and more and more are choosing prophylactic surgery to remove their breasts and/or ovaries. Doing this can cut their risk of developing cancer to below that of an average woman.

But what if you don’t have a known genetic mutation, just a mom or an aunt or a few female relatives who’ve had breast cancer? Is there anything you can do to minimize your own risk when you’re not even sure if genes are involved?

Yes. “Many factors can dial your risk up or down," Chung says. "There are things you can do.”

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