How Breast Cancer Affects Generations

One in 8 women will get breast cancer, and a small percentage of these women will not be the first in their families to battle the disease.

According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, 8 percent of breast cancer is the result of genetics and about 13 percent of women diagnosed have a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer. That means thousands—if not, millions—of women within a family have had this shared experience. Breast cancer can affect generations of women (and men) in so many ways: Some fear getting the disease because of their family history, while others spend countless hours carrying for a loved one who is fighting breast cancer. This October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s the perfect time to understand how breast cancer can affect families and to support a loved one who has been touched by this disease.

Understanding Genetic Risk Factors

The majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, but abnormal changes in genes passed from generation to generation can be a risk factor for breast cancer. The cancer itself isn’t inherited, but rather the gene abnormality. Even so, this risk factor only leads to cancer in a small percentage of cases, as gene mutations inherited from a parent are responsible for only 5-10 percent of cancers.

If you have a family history of cancer, it’s important to have a complete understanding of how this can impact your risk. Cancer in a first-degree relative is more concerning than cancer in a distant relative, because the chances of inheriting a gene mutation from a second or third-degree family member, such as an aunt, cousin or grandfather, are far lower than inheriting it from your parent.

Breast cancer on either side of a family also can affect a person’s risk. Studies have shown that related cancers, such as colon or prostate cancer, in a woman’s father or brother can increase her breast cancer risk. A family history of breast cancer on the father’s side of the family also can be a risk factor. However, you should examine each side of your family, respectively. If your father’s cousin and your mother’s great-aunt both developed breast cancer, for example, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an increased risk of also being diagnosed. Learning about your family’s cancer history can provide vital information that can help you be more proactive in potentially decreasing your risk.

Coping with Cancer Fears

Many women, even those without a family history, fear a breast cancer diagnosis. If you’ve experienced cancer in your family, this fear can sometimes be overwhelming. However, it’s important to talk to your doctor and get regular mammograms.

Though it’s normal to have these health concerns, your doctor can help you understand your actual risk factors for developing cancer, especially those that are genetically-related. You may discover that your risk factors are lower than you actually imagined. However, even if it is the reverse, your doctor can advise you about lifestyle changes and procedures that may reduce your risk, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding or limiting hormone therapy, and in some cases, undergoing a preventative breast cancer surgery, such as a mastectomy and reconstruction.

Caring for a Loved One

Breast cancer doesn’t just affect one person, it affects generations within a family. Even if you’ve never had breast cancer it can still impact your life, especially if you care for a loved one who is fighting the disease. A young daughter or son caring for a mother diagnosed with breast cancer often become part of her cancer journey, from accompanying her to doctor’s appointments to being a source of support when their loved one needs a shoulder to cry on. The same can be said for an adult child caring for an elderly parent with breast cancer, or vice versa.

A breast cancer diagnosis can be tough on every family member, but it’s so important for families to maintain a positive outlook and to be sensitive to a loved one’s needs. Breast cancer changes a family’s priorities, but it also can bring them closer together.

If you have questions about breast cancer, are concerned about your potential risk factors or want more information about how to support a loved one with breast cancer, contact MetroHealth for more information or to schedule an appointment.

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