Family breast cancer 'as treatable' as other tumours

Angelina Jolie Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Angelina Jolie carried a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, having a strong family history of the condition does not worsen your prognosis, researchers have discovered.

Experts say the British Journal of Surgery findings offer reassurance to women with this hereditary risk.

Although inherited genes increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer, they do not make the disease harder to treat successfully, the research shows.

The authors looked at the outcomes of nearly 3,000 UK breast cancer patients.

All the women in the study developed cancer before the age of 41. Around two-thirds said they had no family history of the disease while the remaining third said they did.

The researchers looked at how the cancers were growing, and how well the tumours responded to treatment.

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There was no significant difference between the two groups of women in terms of how often the cancer returned or spread around the body.

This finding remained even when the researchers sorted the cancers into treatment types - those that could and could not be treated with hormone therapy.

Lead researcher Prof Ramsey Cutress, from the University of Southampton, said: "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.

"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."

Dr Matt Lam, from Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: "These findings could offer reassurance to these women and could help them significantly when selecting their treatment options."

Samia al Qadhi, chief executive at Breast Cancer Care, said: "Many younger women with breast cancer are terrified about it coming back, especially when they have seen other family members face the disease.

"This crucial study now gives clear evidence confirming that, rather than a family history, it is the type and stage of the breast cancer and the treatments given which are the biggest factors influencing each person's survival.

"It's also important to remember that spotting the signs early is vital - diagnosing breast cancer as soon as possible can lead to simpler and more effective treatment."

About a quarter of all cases of breast cancer are thought to be related to hereditary factors. Some of the genes involved have been identified and can be screened for, but experts say there are many more yet to be discovered.

In the UK, guidelines say women should only be referred for genetic testing if they are at high risk - for example, if your mother or sister developed breast cancer before she was aged 40.

Men should be offered genetic screening if, at any age, their father, brother or son develops breast cancer.

In the UK, most breast cancers occur in women aged around 45 and older, which is why routine mammography screening is offered to women in this age group.

Signs of breast cancer

Most breast lumps are not cancerous but it is best to get checked if you notice any of the following:

  • a lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast
  • a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • discharge from either nipple
  • a lump or swelling in either armpit
  • dimpling on the skin of either breast
  • a rash on or around the nipple
  • a change in the appearance of the nipple, such as it becoming sunken into the breast

Source: NHS Choices

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