The family history factor in breast cancer

Family photo

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) Your family history – or rather your genes – determine a lot of things when it comes to your body and your health. Your genes also put you at risk for certain diseases like breast cancer. Another risk factor, breast density, affects up to 50% of women.

Meet Marcie

There are a lot of things Marcie Apple hopes to pass down to her daughters Sophie and Abbey, like good values and the ability to live each day to its fullest. But the girls may also get something else: a high risk of breast cancer.

“It’s just hard to see family and friends go through that.”

Apple has had two relatives die of breast cancer and had her own scare ten years ago. She had a mammogram that revealed a lump. It lump was not cancer, but the mammogram revealed something Apple didn’t know. She had dense breasts.

“I didn’t really realize there was a difference in density with the breast tissue,” Apple said. “Then it was explained to me that it just makes it harder to see tumors or lumps that you feel, sometimes mammography won’t pick it up.”

What’s Your Risk?

Researchers know if you have a lot of people in your family with breast cancer, it’s more likely you have a genetic defect in your family. More specifically, studies show family members can inherit a defect in the genes that safeguard us from breast cancer like BRCA 1 and BRCA 2.

Dr. Hui Shen, a cancer genetics researcher at Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, says a defect in BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 increases your risk of breast cancer eight-fold.

“The conclusion is yes, it can be inheritable. And they found genes that are responsible for high density breasts as well,” Dr. Shen said.

If a woman, like Apple, has dense breasts and a family history of breast cancer, Dr. Shen says her risk of breast cancer still depends on the level of breast density and the nature of the family history.

“Because breast density is really a gradient and judging breast density is very subjective, and also on the family history side, you can have one relative or two first-degree relatives, or they can get it at a young age, these all really vary and for each woman is different,” Dr. Shen said.

Van Andel Institute is pursuing more answers through its breast cancer research. Dr. Shen is working as part of a consortium called the Cancer Genome Atlas Project.

“Our aim is to fully characterize the molecular alterations in 30 different cancer types and breast cancer is one of them, and we have studied more than a thousand tumors for breast cancer alone,” said Dr. Shen.

The Next Steps

Since finding the lump and learning she has dense breasts, Apple has been vigilant, participating in breast cancer fundraisers and keeping up on her screenings. She’s had tomosynthesis, ultrasound, and breast MRIs. Those are more sensitive tests recommended by doctors for women with dense breasts; tests that can catch things a mammogram might not reveal.

“For those women with very dense breast tissue, it’s so important they get their testing done, they at least get a baseline MRI, to see if there is pre-cancerous tissue, if there is anything that’s not getting picked up.”

Now women want to know whether those tests that go above and beyond a mammogram are covered by insurance. Watch Marlee Ginter’s report “Beyond the mammogram: paying for peace of mind” by clicking here.

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