Family history not age greatly affects breast cancer risk

CancerBACUP has published the results of a survey revealing that more over 50s believe that family history - not age - greatly affects breast cancer risk. At the same time the leading cancer information and support charity has published a leaflet aimed at increasing understanding among the general public of the real risk of inheriting breast cancer.

The survey of more than 300 hundred readers of Yours Magazine, aimed at women aged 50+, shows six out of ten thought having one relative with breast cancer greatly increased breast cancer risk. Conversely, only one in ten felt that age affects risk a great deal.

In reality, age is the greatest risk factor for breast cancer - about 80% of cases develop in women over 50. Furthermore, most cases are not inherited - only 5 to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be caused by a faulty gene that runs in the family.

The new CancerBACUP leaflet explains the real risks of breast cancer and put this relatively minimal genetic risk into perspective. The leaflet is aimed at alleviating the concerns of the 'worried well' while ensuring that the minority who may be at higher risk seek referral.

The leaflet points out that it is only likely that a faulty gene that can increase breast cancer risk is present in your family, if you have:

  • Three close relatives from the same side of the family who developed breast cancer at any age, or
  • Two close relatives from the same side of the family who developed breast cancer under 60, or
  • One close relative who developed breast cancer at the age of 40 or under, or
  • Breast and ovarian cancer on the same side of the family or a male relative with breast cancer or a close relative with cancer in both breasts.

"The leaflet is different to other CancerBACUP publications in that it is aimed at those who are worrying unnecessarily," says CancerBACUP’s Genetics Information Project Manager Andrea Pithers. "There are many popular myths about breast cancer genetics. We want to reduce anxiety in those who are not at risk whilst ensuring that those who may have cause for concern seek help."

The breast cancer leaflet is one of a four-leaflet series about cancer and genetics: they cover the risk of inheriting cancer in general as well as breast, ovarian and bowel cancer – the more common cancers for which genetic testing is available.

The leaflets have been sent to 1000 general practitioners across the UK and widely circulated to all Cancer Networks, Regional Genetics Centres, Department of Health contacts and many relevant cancer charities. They are also available on CancerBACUP’s website at:

"Producing high-quality information for patients concerned about their family history of cancer who do not have a high risk has been a most challenging exercise," says Dr James Mackay, of North East Thames Clinical Genetics Service. "I am confident that these leaflets fill a very important information need."


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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