What is the Link between Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer?

The link between breast cancer and ovarian cancer has to do with the parallel risks of developing either cancer. Researchers have discovered that women who develop breast cancer have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer later in life, and women who develop ovarian cancer have an increased risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

The relationship between these increased risks is based on hereditary factors. Women with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer have an increased risk of developing either cancer. These risks increase to varying degrees depending on which cancer the family has a history of, the particulars of the family history, if and when the woman develops either of the two cancers, and which cancer the woman develops. For example, women who develop breast cancer before age forty are three times more likely to develop ovarian cancer later in life than women who do not develop breast cancer. However, women who develop breast cancer before age forty and have a family history of ovarian cancer are seventeen times more likely to develop ovarian cancer later in life.

These increases in the risks of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer are partly explained by the inherited mutations of two particular genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Both of these genes belong to a larger class of genes known as tumor suppressors, and are essential for repairing damaged DNA. Researchers have discovered that these genes have developed mutations in some women, and that these mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes substantially increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer in women. Women with normal functioning BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have about a twelve percent risk of developing breast cancer and about a two percent risk of developing ovarian cancer by age seventy. In contrast, women with a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have up to an eighty-five percent risk of developing breast cancer and up to a fifty percent risk of developing ovarian cancer by age seventy. Mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means parents have a fifty percent chance of passing the mutated gene to their offspring.

It is important to note that it is unknown exactly how much BRCA mutations account for the increased risks of developing breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer that are associated with women who have a family history of either cancer. That is, women with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer may not have an inherited BRCA mutation, but will still have a higher risk of developing either cancer than women who do not have a family history of either cancer. Furthermore, women who have inherited a BRCA mutation are not guaranteed to develop breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer; they are only likely to possess a greater risk of developing either cancer than women who have normal functioning BRCA genes and no family history of either cancer. It is disputed whether a woman with a BRCA mutation will have a greater risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer than a woman with normal functioning BRCA genes but with a family history of either cancer. All researchers, however, agree that BRCA mutations and a family history of breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer put women at a greater risk of developing both cancers.

Tests are available to determine whether or not women may have an inherited BRCA mutation. In most cases, a family member with either breast cancer or ovarian cancer is tested for mutations of the BRCA genes. If a mutation is found, other family members are then tested to determine if they have inherited that particular mutation. It is difficult to test a woman for a BRCA mutation if that woman has not been diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or if no other family member of that woman with either cancer has been tested, because technology is currently limited in its capabilities to test for every possible mutation. The test is much more accurate when used to test for a particular mutation. Researchers have identified more than 450 different mutations of the BRCA genes.

Women at high risks of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer are encouraged to schedule frequent screenings for both cancers. Consult your family physician if you are unsure whether or not you are at a high risk for developing either cancer. Regular breast cancer screenings include monthly breast self-examinations, annual clinical breast exams and annual mammograms. Regular ovarian cancer screenings include annual pelvic exams along with transvaginal ultrasounds and CA-125 testing. Women at high risks for developing breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer should consult a physician about individual screening recommendations. Remember, early detection is the key to surviving cancer.

References:

American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
John Hopkins Pathology
FacingOurRisk.org
BreastCancer.org
GeneticHealth.org


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