Breast & Ovarian Cancer

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How common are breast and ovarian cancers?

One in every nine women (about 11% of women) will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer diagnosed among women — skin cancer tops the list. An average woman's risk of ovarian cancer is about 1% to 2% (about one in 70). Ovarian cancer is more difficult to detect than breast cancer and is much harder to treat because it tends to be found after it has spread. You are most likely to be at risk for inherited breast or ovarian cancer if you have a family history of one or both of these diseases. Meeting with a genetic counselor or a doctor trained in genetics will help you decide if genetic testing is right for you.

Read more about breast and ovarian cancers

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that can develop in one of several areas of the breast. A woman's risk of developing breast cancer increases with age; more than 3 out of 4 breast cancer cases occur in women over age 50. Other risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Having close relatives, such as a mother, sister or grandmother, who have had the disease
  • Being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • Having had chest radiation for another cancer, such as Hodgkin's disease
  • Having already had the disease or certain other abnormalities of breast tissue
  • Increased exposure to the female hormone estrogen -- by having a first menstrual period before age 13, entering menopause after age 51, or using estrogen replacement therapy for more than 5 years.
  • Never having been pregnant, or having a first pregnancy after age 30
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause
  • Drinking alcohol (cancer risk doubles with three or more drinks per day)
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle with little regular exercise

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the ovaries. Ovarian cancer often does not cause any symptoms until it has spread beyond the ovary. Doctors have a hard time detecting the disease during a pelvic exam before this late stage. The chances of developing ovarian cancer also increase with age. Most ovarian cancers occur in women over age 50. The highest risk is in women over 60. Women who have never had children are more likely to develop ovarian cancer, too.

Read more about ovarian cancer

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