Researchers Recommend Regularly Updating Family History of Cancer

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A new study found that doctors and patients need to regularly talk about and update the patient's family history of cancer -- including breast cancer.

The research was published in July 2011 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A person's family history of breast cancer can affect:

  • how doctors determine breast cancer risk
  • the type of breast cancer screening tests recommended
  • the best time to start breast cancer screening
  • whether or not genetic counseling and testing might be a good option
  • the steps that might be taken to reduce breast cancer risk -- including diet and lifestyle changes, medicines, or protective surgery (prophylactic mastectomy or ovary removal)

Researchers analyzed the medical and family histories of more than 11,000 people participating in the long-term, ongoing study (also called a registry) called the Cancer Genetics Network. All the people in the study have a personal or family history of cancer.

The researchers looked at the percentage of people considered at high risk for colon, prostate, and/or breast cancer at different times in the study. Anyone at high risk was eligible for high-risk cancer screening.

More family members were diagnosed with cancer as the study progressed. So as people in the study grew older, more of them were eligible for high-risk cancer screening:

  • 2.1% of people were eligible for high-risk colon cancer screening at age 30; 7.1% were eligible at age 50
  • 0.9% of men were eligible for high-risk prostate cancer screening at age 30; 2% were eligible at age 50
  • 7.2% of women were eligible for high-risk breast cancer screening at age 30; 11.4% were eligible at age 50

Based on the results, the researchers recommend that doctors and patients talk about and update family cancer history -- including family history of breast cancer -- every 5 to 10 years. Doing this helps doctors figure out if a person's cancer risk has changed from average to high over time. If risk does go up, it could mean that a special high-risk cancer screening plan is needed.

Make it a routine to review and update your family health history -- including any new breast cancer diagnoses in your family -- with your doctor during your regularly scheduled visits. All the adults in your extended family should do the same. If you or anyone in your family needs help understanding or explaining the family's health history, ask a doctor or other health professional for assistance.

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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