Why Family History Matters So Much for Ovarian Cancer

It’s important to find out as much as you can about all cancers in your family.

Medically reviewed in March 2021

Updated on February 4, 2022

When it comes to breast and ovarian cancers, family history can be revealing. Cancer experts have known for years that having a close blood relative (such as a parent, sibling, or child) with certain cancer types can raise your risk for the same type of cancer. But the risk may reach even further, making you more likely to develop a cancer that doesn't seem related to the one your family member might have.

The family-cancer connection
In a 2013 study published in Annals of Oncology, scientists in Italy, Switzerland, and France looked at data from 23,000 people and came up with two important findings:

  • Women with a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) who had breast cancer had a 2.3-fold increased risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Women with a family history of colorectal cancer had a 1.5-fold increased (or 50 percent higher) risk of breast cancer.

One reason for these connections is that certain genes influence multiple types of cancer. That means if multiple family members share a genetic variation, it could boost the risk of more than one type of cancer.

For example, mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes—which encode proteins that help repair DNA—raise the risks for both ovarian and breast cancers.

The results of these studies may seem troubling. But they shine a light on powerful pieces of information to share with your healthcare provider.

How to take action
If you have a family history of cancer, you may want to look into matters a little more deeply. Need some help getting started? In addition to mapping out your family health history, here's what you can do.

  • Make prevention a priority. If you smoke, quit. That’s one of the most powerful things you can do to prevent cancer. Learn other steps you can take to reduce your risk for specific cancers like ovarian, colon, and prostate—and know the four things you can do to cut your risk not only of cancer but also several other types of chronic disease.
  • Consider getting tested. Genetic testing may detect breast or ovarian cancer early on, but it pays to be informed beforehand, since testing has its risks as well as rewards.
  • Maintain a personal health record. As you learn more about how cancer has affected your family, makes notes so that your personal health record is always up to date.

 

Article sources open article sources

Mayo Clinic. Cancer prevention: 7 tips to reduce your risk. Feb. 17, 2021.
Turati F, Edefonti V, Bosetti C, et al. Family history of cancer and the risk of cancer: a network of case-control studies. Ann Oncol. 2013;24(10):2651-2656.
Kuchenbaecker KB, Hopper JL, Barnes DR, et al. Risks of Breast, Ovarian, and Contralateral Breast Cancer for BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutation Carriers. JAMA. 2017;317(23):2402-2416.
American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Risk Factors You Cannot Change. Last revised December 16, 2021.

 

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