Family History of Breast Cancer Doesn’t Mean Worse Outcomes for Young Women

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Women with close relatives who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. Young women with a family history who do develop breast cancer may worry about their prognosis and whether that is affected by family history as well.

A study looked at that question and found that young women with a family history of breast cancer who were diagnosed with the disease had the same outcomes as young women diagnosed with breast cancer who didn’t have a family history of the disease.

The study was published online on May 20, 2015 by the British Journal of Surgery. Read “Family history and outcome of young patients with breast cancer in the UK (POSH study).” (PDF)

In the study, researchers looked at the records of 2,850 women age 40 or younger who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2008.

Most of the women had no family history of breast or ovarian cancer:

  • about 66% (1,878 women) had no family history
  • about 34% (972 women) had a first- or second-degree relative who had been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer

A first degree-relative is a relative you share half your genes with: mother, sister, daughter. A second-degree relative is a relative you share one quarter of your genes with: aunt, niece, grandmother.

Women with a family history of breast cancer were more likely to be diagnosed with cancers that were grade 3. The grade of a cancer is a score that tells you how different the cancer cells’ appearance and growth patterns are from healthy cells:

  • grade 1 cancer cells look a little different from healthy cells and grow in slow, well organized patterns
  • grade 2 cancer cells do not look like healthy cells and grow a little faster than normal
  • grade 3 cancer cells look very different from healthy cells and grow quickly in disorganized, irregular patterns

Women with a family history of breast cancer were also less likely to be diagnosed with HER2-positive disease.

When the researchers compared distant disease-free survival between the two groups, there were no differences between women who had a family history of breast cancer and women who did not.

Distant disease-free survival means the women had no cancer recurrence 5 years after diagnosis. In other words, 5 years after being diagnosed, they were cancer-free.

"Successful treatment for breast cancer is just as likely in young patients with a family history of breast cancer as in those without a family history," said Ramsey Cutress, associate professor in breast surgery at the University of Southampton and one of the study’s authors. "Patients with a family history of breast cancer can therefore be reassured that their family history alone does not mean that their outcome will be worse."

The researchers now plan to study whether certain genetic abnormalities linked to breast cancer, such as abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, affect the effectiveness of breast cancer treatments.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, the results of this study are very encouraging. While it can be scary to know that you have a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer, it’s good to know that if you do happen to be diagnosed, your outcome is likely to be no different than someone with no family history of breast cancer.

There are lifestyle choices you can make to keep your risk of developing breast cancer as low as it can be if you have a family history of breast cancer, including:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising regularly
  • limiting alcohol
  • eating nutritious food
  • never smoking (or quitting if you do smoke)

For more information on other risk-lowering options, visit the Family History page in the Breastcancer.org Breast Cancer Risk Factors section.



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