What’s in Your Genes?
Published on March 1, 2016.



Part One of a Three-Part Series by Norma E. Roth

Family history. We hear these two words a lot at SJRA when women talk with their physicians about breast cancer. What does “family history” mean in this context and why does it matter?

Family history is an important risk factor for many health problems, especially cancer. Family his-tory is the reason that actress Angelina Jolie had BRCA genetic testing followed by prophylactic bilateral mastectomy in 2013. About 90% of women with breast cancer do not have a family his-tory of the disease. However, women with close family members diagnosed with breast cancer do have a higher risk of developing the disease. If the relative a first-degree family member (mother, sister, daughter) the risk is doubled. If a second-degree relative (grandmother, aunt, niece), then the risk is slightly lower.

A strong family history of breast cancer (several diagnoses on the same side of the family) may be linked to an abnormal gene such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.

Most people are surprised to learn that everyone (both men and women) has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. BRCA refers to BReast CAncer susceptibility gene. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor- suppressor genes that normally help control or prevent cancer in our bodies. Genes, how-ever, are not always perfect. A person with a mutation in a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene has in-creased cancer risks. Men and women who are carriers of BRCA1 or BRCA2 can also pass the mutation to their children. These children who inherit the mutation have increased cancer risks as adults.

Although there are other gene mutations associated with increased cancer risk, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the two most common gene mutations associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancers (HBOC). These mutations are also more common in certain ethnic groups. Ashkenazi Jews (Eastern or Central European descent) are most at risk, with a 1 in 40 chance of having a mutation. In the general population, about 1 in 500 to 1 in 800 individuals have a mutation.

A close blood relative with a certain type of cancer can increase your own risk of the disease. It doesn’t mean you will develop it, it’s just one of many contributing factors. Other factors are lifestyle, diet, and environment. If you’re adopted, learning your family health history may be difficult. It’s recommended you contact your state health and social service agency for information on how to access your biological family medical and legal records.

For more information about family risk factors, visit the Centers for Disease Control. If you are concerned that you might have inherited the genetic mutation that puts you at higher risk, talk to your doctor about whether genetic counseling might be appropriate.

Early detection of breast cancer remains the best chance for survival; for appointments, please book online (click HERE) or call 1-888-909-SJRA (7572). South Jersey Radiology offers mammograms at the following Offices: the Women’s Centers in Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Greentree (Marlton), Turnersville, Voorhees (Carnie Blvd. Office and at Virtua), Washington Township, Cross Keys, and West Deptford.

SJRA Blogger Norma Roth

About Norma E. Roth

Norma E. Roth, a breast cancer survivor, is a freelance journalist for health wellness and sustainable living. She is an advocate for annual mammography screening, believing early detection is the key to cancer survival. You can learn more about her at

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