We all have genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes repair cell damage and control the creation of new cells.
But inherited changes, or mutations, to these genes can increase the possibility of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and certain other cancers. Families with a potentially harmful BRCA mutation may experience a mix of these cancers.
Our experienced team helps you and your family assess your risk. Learn more about who should consider genetic counseling.
After collecting a small amount of saliva or blood, our team can send your sample to a lab. We then interpret the results.
Sometimes we look for a mutation already found in your family. At other times, we test for all known BRCA mutations.
Learn more about our genetic testing for cancer.
BRCA and Hereditary Breast Cancer
If you suspect that breast cancer runs in your family, keep in mind that:
- While not all BRCA mutations are harmful, many raise the risk for breast cancer. Researchers believe inherited genetic changes play a major role in 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers. BRCA mutations are the most common genetic factor.
- BRCA mutations are found in families of many backgrounds, though they occur most frequently in people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
- Normally, women in the U.S. face a 12 percent chance they will develop breast cancer in their lives. Recent studies of potentially harmful mutations show that the possibility rises to 72 percent for BRCA1 and 69 percent for BRCA2.
- Potentially harmful BRCA mutations also raise breast cancer risk for men.
- BRCA-related cancers develop differently than other breast cancers. They tend to emerge at a younger age. Initial evidence also suggests a second cancer is more likely to develop after treatment in the same breast or the opposite breast. Finally, BRCA1 mutations cause more cases of triple-negative breast cancer, a type more difficult to treat.
- Mutations in other genes can also raise breast cancer risk. Learn more about the genetic cancer risks we can assess.
BRCA and Ovarian Cancer
BRCA mutations are connected to an estimated 15 percent of ovarian cancer cases. These ovarian cancers often form at an earlier age.
Normally, 1.3 percent of women in the U.S. develop ovarian cancer in their lives. For women with a potentially harmful BRCA1 mutation, that proportion increases to 44 percent. For women with a potentially harmful BRCA2 mutation, 17 percent will develop ovarian cancer.
BRCA and Other Cancers
People with certain BRCA mutations also face higher risk for other cancers:
- BRCA1: Prostate, pancreatic and colon cancers
- BRCA2: Prostate and pancreatic cancers and melanoma skin cancer
Detecting or Preventing Cancer for BRCA Mutations
If genetic testing reveals a potentially harmful BRCA mutation, our team helps you work with other UCLA Health specialists to determine your options. Certain steps may help prevent a BRCA-related cancer or detect it when it’s most treatable:
- Screening: Your medical team may recommend getting more frequent scans and other tests. They may also adjust the age you should begin screening and the type of imaging you receive. Your team may recommend breast MRI rather than mammography, for example, or both. Effective screening does not yet exist for ovarian cancer.
- Surgery: Risk-reducing, or prophylactic, surgery is a very personal decision. UCLA Health specialists can help you work through the considerations. Many women choose to have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed because ovarian cancer screening is not yet effective. Since screening does catch many early breast cancers, doctors may not recommend a risk-reducing mastectomy.
- Medications: Doctors may recommend chemoprevention for women at higher risk for breast cancer. These women may be at higher risk from a BRCA mutation or another factor. Your medical team will share the latest evidence for using one of these drugs — tamoxifen or raloxifene — to reduce BRCA-related risk. Birth control pills also reduce the risk of ovarian cancer for all women.