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Open Discussion About Breast Cancer Family History Leads to Better Understanding of Genetic Testing

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Research has shown that African American women don't get genetic counseling and testing for breast cancer genes as often as white women, even when family history suggests that counseling and testing might be a good choice. Researchers wanted to understand why this difference exists.

The researchers couldn't find any major differences between African American women and white women that would explain the differences in genetic counseling and testing rates. Still, they did find that if a family openly discusses breast cancer and who in the family has been diagnosed, then the women in the family know more about genetic counseling and testing and are more likely to use these services if they're appropriate. It may be that African American families are less likely to talk about breast cancer, which might make African American women less likely to participate in genetic counseling and testing than white women.

Breast cancer history in a family can influence:

  • how doctors determine a person's breast cancer risk
  • tests used to screen for breast cancer and whether or not genetic counseling and testing might be a good option
  • the steps you might take to reduce your breast cancer risk, including diet and lifestyle changes, taking medications that lower risk, or even having protective surgery (prophylactic mastectomy or ovary removal) to lower risk

In some families and cultures, talking openly about a serious illness such as breast cancer can be difficult and uncomfortable, or considered shameful. Still, talking about disease is one of the best ways for women to recognize that genetics may play a role in breast cancer diagnoses in their families. Armed with this knowledge, you can talk to your doctor about whether or not special screening or other testing is needed and take appropriate steps to lower your risk.

Make sure that all adults in your extended family, as well as the doctors who care for them, know about the family's history of disease, including breast cancer. If you need help understanding or explaining that history, ask a doctor or other health professional for help. Even though these conversations might be difficult or uncomfortable, they are acts of love and could eventually save the life of one of your family members, including future generations.

To learn more about breast cancer risk and how you can keep your risk as low as it can be, visit the breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section.

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