Breast Cancer Risk

Specialists in the Cancer Center that provide breast cancer risk assessment are faculty members of Harvard Medical School and regularly teach other physicians in Continuing Medical Education courses.

Patients may be at increased risk of developing cancer if they have:

  • A strong family history of the disease
  • Pathologic diagnosis from prior biopsies such as:
    • atypical hyperplasia
    • lobular carcinoma in situ

A strong family history of breast cancer is defined as a family in which multiple women have breast or ovarian cancer, breast or ovarian cancer is observed at a young age (such as in the 20’s or 30’s), multiple cancers occur in a single individual (breast cancer on both sides or breast and ovarian cancer in a single individual), or breast cancer in a man in the family. If a family has any or all of these characteristics, consultation in the Center for Cancer Risk Assessment may be appropriate to determine the level of hereditary risk that may be present. Management often includes a more intensive screening schedule, initially mammography earlier, or increasing the frequency of physical examination. Medications such as tamoxifen are available which may decrease the risk of breast cancer. Where appropriate, genetic testing may be useful to better define risk.

Women who have been diagnosed with atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are known to be at higher risk of breast cancer regardless of their family history. These patients are followed more closely with a more intensive screening schedule and are often advised to take tamoxifen to help decrease their risk of breast cancer. A woman with either a strong family history or with atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are evaluated to determine their level of risk and to make management recommendations.