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Family history can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, but family can give her the strength to survive it

People Helping Each Other

Pam was only 43 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She says she was disappointed, but not surprised. Most women, especially young women like her, would be shocked. But she has had several close family members diagnosed with breast cancer, which makes it more likely that she herself would have breast cancer.

“I was diagnosed at the same age my mom was, and in the same breast,” she says. In addition to her mother, a maternal aunt and a cousin had also had breast cancer before the age of 45.

A family history of breast cancer increases a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. Because of what she knew about her family, Pam had been getting yearly mammograms since her twenties. In 2013, she found a lump in between her yearly mammograms. Doctors did a biopsy and the biopsy came back malignant. “Sure, I was scared,” Pam says. “Cancer is a frightening thing.”

Pam started with treatment right away. “I knew my family history, but I had also witnessed the strength and survivorship of my family members,” she says. She was determined to fight the cancer with everything she had.

Doctors started Pam on chemotherapy. After eight treatments, the lump had shrunk to almost nothing. Then, she had a lumpectomy and lymph node biopsy and started radiation therapy.

Pam says that her family and friends were invaluable over the course of the treatment. Family members and co-workers sat with her during her chemotherapy treatments. They brought her food and helped look after her house when she wasn’t able to do it. “You sometimes just have to let people help you,” Pam says.

Since then, the cancer has not returned. There is always a chance it could come back. “When you’re taking the medicine, you feel like you have all this power against the cancer, but when you stop it’s like ‘now what?’” says Pam. She says she has to get used to a “new normal” routine, which includes frequent mammograms and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans. She continues to eat healthy foods and exercise and tries to keep her stress levels low.

Importantly, she also reminds her younger sister to keep up with her screening because of their family history.

Pam’s advice for women dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer: “You can’t tell them not to be upset or afraid, because it is a scary diagnosis. You’re going to have your highs and your lows; some days you’re going to feel well and some days you won’t,” she says. “Take it one day at a time.”

There are resources for women who may have a family history of breast cancer or certain genetic traits, which can raise their risk of getting breast cancer. Find out more at CDC’s Bring Your Brave campaign.




What Are the Symptoms?

There are different symptoms of breast cancer, and some people have no symptoms at all. Symptoms can include any change in the size or the shape of the breast, pain in any area of the breast, nipple discharge other than breast milk (including blood), and a new lump in the breast or underarm. If you have any signs that worry you, see your doctor right away.

How Can I Lower My Risk?

The main factors that influence your risk for breast cancer include being a woman, being older (most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older), and having changes in your breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2). Most women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors and no history of the disease in their families. There are things you can do to can help lower your breast cancer risk. The Know:BRCA tool can help you assess your risk of having changes in your BRCA genes.

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

Fast Facts About Breast Cancer

  • Each year in the United States, more than 200,000 women get breast cancer and more than 40,000 women die from the disease.
  • Men also get breast cancer, but it is not very common. Less than 1% of breast cancers occur in men.
  • Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older, but breast cancer also affects younger women. About 10% of all new cases of breast cancer in the United States are found in women younger than 45 years of age.

More Information




CDC’s Bring Your Brave campaign provides information about breast cancer to women younger than age 45 by sharing real stories about young women whose lives have been affected by breast cancer.

Aids Health Foundation
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