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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

How are breast cancer and ovarian cancer connected?

Dr. Jacqueline Kates

DNA helix spiral
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, making now a perfect time to discuss how these two diseases often intersect.

Based on current information today, women in the United States have approximately a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and approximately 1 in 70 lifetime risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While this means that ovarian cancer is much less common, it’s important to note that the two cancers can be linked in several ways.

While some of the reproductive risk factors for these two cancers are similar, genetics clearly plays a large part in this connection. Indications that women may have a genetic predisposition for either of these cancers include a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer (as well as other cancers), and the presence of the BRCA gene, among others.

Our understanding of cancer and genetics is continuously evolving. However, there is a strong link between the BRCA gene and a family history of certain types of cancer. If you have this personal or family history, talk to your health care provider about whether genetic testing makes sense.

Awareness provides opportunities
It’s important to note that while the risks are elevated for women with a family history or genetic predisposition toward breast and ovarian cancers, most women will still never get them.

Having a family history, or even testing positive for the BRCA gene, does not mean you will absolutely get cancer. But it provides the opportunity for us to discuss a plan to reduce your modifiable risk factors, stay up to date on screening modalities, and be attuned to any early signs or symptoms of a problem so they can be addressed immediately.

The best outcomes for most cancer treatments involve diagnosis at the earliest possible stage, and this is true for both breast and ovarian cancer. Because ovarian cancer is a dangerously “silent” disease with few obvious symptoms, it is often diagnosed at later stages. This is a major factor that contributes to ovarian cancer being one of the leading causes of death from a gynecologic cancer in the United States.

Any early indication that you may be at increased risk for developing ovarian cancer only allows us to be more vigilant and proactive in screening. We don’t want patients to be overly worried; but at the same time, people need to have this important information to help take control of their health.

If you are concerned about your risk factors for ovarian or other gynecologic cancer, schedule an appointment so we can talk about addressing them.