It's not clear what causes breast cancer.

Doctors know that breast cancer occurs when some breast cells begin growing abnormally. These cells divide more rapidly than healthy cells do and continue to accumulate, forming a lump or mass. The cells may spread (metastasize) through your breast to your lymph nodes or to other parts of your body.

Breast cancer most often begins with cells in the milk-producing ducts (invasive ductal carcinoma). Breast cancer may also begin in the glandular tissue called lobules (invasive lobular carcinoma) or in other cells or tissue within the breast.

Researchers have identified hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer. But it's not clear why some people who have no risk factors develop cancer, yet other people with risk factors never do. It's likely that breast cancer is caused by a complex interaction of your genetic makeup and your environment.

Inherited breast cancer

Doctors estimate that only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to gene mutations passed through generations of a family.

A number of inherited mutated genes that can increase the likelihood of breast cancer have been identified. The most common are breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2), both of which significantly increase the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer.

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer or other cancers, your doctor may recommend a blood test to help identify specific mutations in BRCA or other genes that are being passed through your family.

Consider asking your doctor for a referral to a genetic counselor, who can review your family health history. A genetic counselor can also discuss the benefits, risks and limitations of genetic testing with you and guide you on appropriate genetic testing.

Nov. 20, 2014

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