Breast Cancer Awareness Month: The importance of Family History


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and no doubt you’ve been seeing the pink ribbons and stickers every now and then. 

Of the many things that are important to early detection and completely curing breast cancer, we’re going to talk about your family history.

It’s important that you ask your parents and aunts and uncles about the illness and health issues of your first- and second-degree relatives.  Getting a history about third degree relatives is also valuable but sometimes harder to get.  This can be awkward in some families, but a simple “My physician said I should ask for my own health” is a simple way to work past a reluctance to discuss negative feelings about family illnesses.  You may learn about several illness where family history is important:  heart disease, stroke, diabetes, blood clots, etc.   Patterns of cancer in your family are also very important—breast cancer included.

No family history

Over 90% of breast cancers are diagnosed in women with no family history.  If you are one of these women, you have the general societal risk of breast cancer: 13-15% over the course of your life.   That number isn’t that great.   Routine mammographic screening starting between 40-50 and annual breast exams by your physician is the recommended screening pathway.   You can also consider doing the Brevagen test if you are over the age of 35 to see if your particular genetic makeup helps move you towards a lower (Or higher) risk of breast cancer relative to the general population.

Some family history

Certain patterns of family history indicate you may be at an increased risk of breast cancer.  Calculators have been developed based on your personal characteristics in addition to family history in first, second and third degree relatives to help more specifically define your risk.   The Tyrer-Cuzick model is one example that we use in our office.  After filling out information your personal lifetime and 10 year risk of developing breast cancer are calculated.  For women with over a 20% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, the NCCN guidelines recommend earlier mammography, more frequent breast exams and for many women an annual MRI in addition to mammogram.  

This is an important way to ensure the earliest possible detection of breast cancer in a specific group of patients with a higher than average chance of developing the disease.

Genetic family history

For some women, the pattern or severity of family history may suggest a specific genetic link.   For these women, genetic testing is appropriate.   Genetic testing is important for more than just knowing if there is a known mutation you may carry, but also for determining if you’re at risk for other types of cancer.  For example, a carrier of one of the BRCA mutations is also at increased risk of ovarian cancer.   There are many known genes that can affect your risk of breast cancer and your gynecologist should be able to determine if you would benefit for being tested for them.


This month, make an effort to collect for your family health history and make sure you update your gynecologist or primary care physician about anything you discover.


El Camino Women’s Medical Group offers the latest Minimally Invasive Solutions for gynecologic problems.   Drs. Amy TengErika Balassiano, and Pooja Gupta, all members of AAGL (American Association of Gynecologic Laparoscopy) are highly trained and experienced in the field of Minimally Invasive Gynecgologic Surgery.   Dr. Erika Balassiano is also completed a Minimally Invasive Gynecologic Surgery Fellowship, under the supervision of world-renowned Dr. Camran Nezhat.


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