My husband’s paternal grandmother had breast cancer. What is the genetic probability that my children might get it?

Genes are the pieces of our DNA code that carry the instructions that make our bodies function. We have two copies of every gene; one from our father and one from our mother. If you’ve ever wondered what family history of breast cancer means for your children’s genetic risks, your concern is valid. If either the husband’s or wife’s side had an older family member who was diagnosed with breast cancer, people get concerned about it and ask, would that result in an increased risk for my children?

genetic counselling for breast cancer, breast cancer, types of cancer, truGeny

Uncertainty and lack of knowledge may lead you to believe that it’s all in destiny. I beg your pardon ma’am, for lack of a better word I would like to say it’s all in the probability. The risk of breast cancer can be assessed and solutions can be deployed for prevention or management. Thanks to the advancement in the science of genetics and medical technologies.

If you are worried, to keep you on the positive side we would like to say that calm down, you’re not alone. Most of us are aware that cancer is due to genetic changes. We can divide it further into two risk categories:

  • Hereditary or Germline Mutation: There is an inherited variation in different genes, which can lead to cancer that runs in families.
  • omatic or Sporadic Mutation: It means the genetic changes in your old granny could be only in the tumor, and it is not passed onto your children.

Mutations on the BRCA genes are often passed from parent to child, increasing the risk of various types of cancer, including breast and ovarian cancer. If a family had a mutation in the BRCA-1 gene, one relative might get breast cancer, but someone else might get ovarian cancer.

genetic counselling for breast cancer, breast cancer, types of cancer, truGeny

Now, if I think my husband’s paternal grandmother had breast cancer and my children may be at risk, I would want to look for certain clues for which I may have to gather more information. If cancer runs in my family, I will see cancers among more than one relative, sometimes even four or five relatives. And I can check if it occurred to them at a younger age. In the early 1990s about 70% of cancer patients were older than 50 years of age. If a grandparent or blood relative suffered from breast cancer or cervical cancer at an early stage, it is a red-flag situation. I may also try to find answers to these questions:

  • Which relatives have had cancer?
  • What was the cancer type?
  • How aggressive was cancer?
  • When was the relative diagnosed (age)?
  • Place of birth and community genetic pool variation (different communities in India have different community customs e.g. marriages among cousins. Living in some locations has increased risk of cancer due to environmental or chemical exposure e.g. pesticide use in some parts of Kerala and Punjab).
  • A genetic evaluation can be carried out based on the answers. If I do not get answers to all these questions, I would want to think of a genetic test. Having information for the above-mentioned questions will help the genetic counsellor to understand my situation better. Based on the genetic report the genetic counsellor can assess my family’s risk for breast cancer. This small step today can be highly useful when your daughter grows up. There could be better technology and more advanced remedies when she becomes an adult. As today we have vaccines for many diseases, potentially there could one for a girl or a boy at a genetic predisposition. Genetic counseling and early risk-reduction plan for breast cancer will not only provide future benefits for family, it may also help you feel more at ease right now.