October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – and thanks to educational campaigns in recent decades, you likely already know it’s important to be proactive about your breast health. 

However, many women may not understand how their family health history and breast density, in addition to other key factors, may play into their own personal risk of developing this kind of cancer. Knowing this information could be critical to early detection and treatment. 

Breast Cancer Misconceptions 

Breast density and family health history are two often misunderstood breast cancer risk factors. 

Nearly half (48%) of the women surveyed don’t know what breast density is, and 50% of the women surveyed aren’t sure if it has anything to do with breast cancer risk, according to the Myriad Genetics Cancer Risk nationwide survey. The truth is that women with dense breasts may be up to four times more likely to develop breast cancer compared to women without dense breasts, according to research

Additionally, higher-density tissue can make it harder to detect breast masses or cancer during a mammogram and may require women to get further imaging tests to rule out potential problems. The Federal Drug Administration recently updated mammography regulations, requiring mammography facilities to notify patients about the density of their breasts by September 2024.  

A complete family health history of breast cancer is unknown to many people. The survey revealed that few women feel like they have adequate medical information from their mother’s side (19%) and father’s side (15%). Nearly a quarter of women reported the prime reason for this lack of information is that they don’t talk about health issues in their families.   

Understanding Risk Factors 

These results show that there is critical work to be done to help women better understand how these and other factors affect their cancer risk, according to Melissa Gonzales, president of women’s health, Myriad Genetics. 

“Having open conversations with your family and OB-GYN, and getting annual mammograms, are essential in breaking down these critical awareness gaps and staying on top of your breast health,” she said. “For women with elevated risk factors, genetic testing can be a helpful tool that provides a cancer risk assessment personalized to them.” 

In addition to family history and breast density, the following factors may increase your risk, according to the CDC

  • Having a personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases. 
  • Getting older, as the risk for breast cancer increases with age, and most women are diagnosed after 50. 
  • Starting your period before 12 and starting menopause after 55, since it exposes you to hormones longer. 
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy. 

Lifestyle factors, such as how much you exercise or if you take hormones, may also play a role. If you have a high risk of developing breast cancer, talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk. This may include taking medicines to block or decrease estrogen in your body, or having surgery, according to the website. 

Genetic Risks for Breast Cancer: Understanding BRCA 

“A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who have had breast or ovarian cancer,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.  

Importantly, hereditary cancer risk isn’t limited to breast cancer on your mother’s side. The CDC indicates that having a “first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.” 

Genetic mutations can affect your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. “Women who have inherited changes (mutations) to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer,” according to the CDC. 

The only way to know if you are a BRCA mutation carrier is if you take a genetic test like the MyRisk® with RiskScore® hereditary cancer test from Myriad Genetics. MyRisk evaluates 48 genes to help healthcare providers identify their patients risk of developing 11 different types of hereditary cancer. The clear, actionable results MyRisk provides are the foundation for personalized care plans that can be used to help patients make confident, informed decisions about their medical management. 

Catching a Hidden Cancer 

Lisa W. knew that regular screenings would be important for her after she lost her mom to breast cancer when her mom was in her 40s. But even with regular mammograms starting in her early 30s, Lisa almost missed catching a hidden cancer of her own. 

She had clear mammograms for years and had only one experience with abnormal results before going back to all clear.  

Then, she saw a new doctor at her clinic – and the new doctor thought it wise to push further. Knowing Lisa’s history, she recommended Lisa take a MyRisk genetic test.  

After seeing Lisa’s MyRisk with RiskScore results, Lisa’s doctor ordered a breast MRI, and things moved very quickly from there. The MRI revealed that Lisa’s left breast was 90% full of aggressive cancer that could not be seen on a mammogram. She was diagnosed with invasive ductal and lobular breast cancer and scheduled for surgery a few days later. She says the news came as a shock:  

“A moment with the surgeon continues to be on my mind — and is why I am sharing my story. It was his question: why get the MRI when the mammogram was clear? The answer was simple: MyRisk genetic testing. 

“He said, ‘When you see the doctor who recommended MyRisk®, thank her. If you had waited another six months, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation. You wouldn’t have the options you do today.’ 

That’s when I broke down crying. The kind of cancer I have is so aggressive that if I hadn’t had the genetic testing, I wouldn’t have had the other tests, the diagnosis, and the surgery as quickly as I had.  

And it may have been too late to save my life.”  

Lisa’s story: How her mom’s battle with breast cancer inspired her to get genetic testing

Identifying Risks for More Informed Decisions 

Genetic testing may help uncover information that can guide your medical management decisions and help develop personalized care plans if you’re at risk of developing hereditary cancers.  

For more information about Myriad’s hereditary cancer test and risk assessment, 

MyRisk® Hereditary Cancer Test with RiskScore®, please visit: