Ask the Expert

Risk factors for ovarian and breast cancer

Question: Are there certain people that are more susceptible to ovarian and breast cancer than others?

Answer: When it comes to cancer, 60 to 70-percent of some cases may be related to environmental risks – smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, excessive exposure to the sun. About 20 to 30 percent of other cases may come from familial, and approximately five percent from genetic predisposition, like the inherited mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA 2 gene.

Though environmental risks seem higher, there are certain measures people can take to better manage these risks. For example, research has shown that obesity, a weekly intake of three to five glasses of alcohol, supplemental estrogen, and low levels of vitamin D may increase cancer risks. However, exercising three to five hours a week can decrease one’s chance by 20 percent.

The five percent that have the genetic predisposition are actually at the highest risk with an 80 to 90 percent chance of getting breast, ovarian and possibly pancreatic cancer. This inheritance differs from the familial cases as it affects multiple first-degree relatives versus a mix between first and second – if it is genetic, it does not skip between generations.

For breast cancer, those at a higher risk might be encouraged to do more imaging every six months. Some may just take medication if they want to avoid surgery, until the risk is too high.

If a woman is at a high risk for ovarian cancer, she

may be required to have transvaginal ultrasounds every six months. The recommendation is for a high risk patient to have her ovaries removed as soon as she is done having kids, or by the age of 40 because removal can greatly reduce those cancer risks. In addition, there are currently no accurate screening processes to detect ovarian cancer, unlike breast cancer.

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