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About Ovarian and Breast Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynecological cancer. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer.

Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed, know someone with cancer, or want to learn about ways to reduce your risk of cancer, here’s a basic overview to help you better understand how cancer affects the body. Below you will find more detailed information on breast and ovarian cancer.

Breast Cancer Overview

Ovarian Cancer Overview

Breast & Ovarian Cancer Population-Specific Information

Breast and Ovarian Cancer in Black Women

Breast and Ovarian Cancer in the LGBTQIA+ Community

What is cancer?

Our bodies are composed of trillions of cells, each with a specific purpose and function. They are the building blocks of the human body. Each cell has a program for when it divides to make more cells. If this program breaks down so that the stop and go signals for cell division don’t work like they’re supposed to, cells can grow uncontrollably to cause cancer. Cancer is uncontrolled cell growth that interferes with the normal function of the body.

Breast cancers are cancers that start in one of several types of cells found in breast tissue. Most breast cancers are carcinomas, meaning that the tumor developed from a specific cell type called epithelial cells, but there are other breast cancer subtypes that develop from different kinds of breast cells.

Many, but not all, types of breast cancer form lumps, so it is important to get regular mammograms which can detect breast cancers that don’t form lumps and can also detect cancers at an earlier stage. Importantly, most breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous) and are therefore nonthreatening, but all breast lumps should be checked by a healthcare professional. 

Every time a cell divides, there’s a chance that mutations will be created that change the stop and go signals for the cell’s division. Most of the time these mutations are caught and fixed. Once in a while, one of these mutations doesn’t get fixed and this can lead to loss of control of how the cell divides and grow and result in cancerous growth.

Ovarian cancers can originate from cells in the fallopian tubes or one of several cell types found in the ovary. There are many subtypes of ovarian cancer that can develop from different cell types and tissues, but the vast majority of ovarian cancers are epithelial tumors, meaning the tumor starts from the cells that cover the outer surface of the ovary.

Ovarian tumors can be benign (non-cancerous and usually don’t lead to illness), borderline (slow growing and unlikely to spread outside the ovary), or malignant (cancerous).

Breast and ovarian cancer are often genetically linked. Mutations in many of the same genes — such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 — leads to a high risk for developing breast, ovarian, and other types of cancers. Being diagnosed with one of these cancers also increases the risk of being diagnosed with the other. The biggest risk factors for both diseases are having ovaries and getting older, though younger people can be diagnosed with either disease.

What causes cancer?

Cancer is caused by a combination of normal cell processes, genetics, and environmental and lifestyle factors.
Every time a cell divides, there’s a chance that mutations will be created that change the stop and go signals for the cell’s division. Most of the time these mutations are caught and fixed. Once in a while, one of these mutations doesn’t get fixed and this can lead to loss of control of how the cell divides and grow and result in cancerous growth.

Cancer is a genetic disease. This means that genetic mutations in a number of genes lead to a breakdown of the cell’s stop and go signals for cell division to cause cancer. This can happen due to normal cell metabolism as described above in anyone.

However, some individuals have gene mutations inherited from mom or dad that can increase the risk of cancer forming. Two well-known genes that are found mutated in families with high incidence of ovarian and breast cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Individuals with mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 are more likely to acquire mutations that disrupt the stop and go signals for cell division, hence increasing the risk of cancer. Though BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most common genes mutated in familial ovarian and breast cancer, research has identified mutations in at least 17 other genes that increase the risk of ovarian, breast, both, or other types of cancers.

Most of these genes are known to interact with each other in a common cellular pathway known as homologous recombination. Individuals who have family history of ovarian and/or breast cancer but do not have a known gene mutation are still considered to be at high risk

» Assess your risk for breast and ovarian cancer

Exposure to chemicals and radiation in the environment can increase risk for cancer. Common factors known to increase cancer risk are pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, and alcohol consumption. Environmental factors can lead to increased cancer risk by mutating cellular DNA.

1 in 8

with ovaries
will get breast cancer

1 in 75

with ovaries
will be diagnosed
with ovarian cancer


of ovarian and breast cancer is hereditary

Julie Duggan

Ovarian cancer survivor

“My niece has the BRCA mutation and lost her mom at age 42 from breast cancer. Her courage inspired me to contact the Rivkin Center when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.”

Michelle Tibbs

Breast cancer survivor

“Early detection made a huge difference in my treatment and my survival.”

Are you a cancer survivor? Help spread the word about early detection. Contact us to find out more about sharing your story

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Talk to your Family

Talking to your family and identifying cancer in your family tree can be a good indicator of your health risks. Download our Family Tree Worksheet here.  Be sure to include yourself, children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Get Educated

Know your body and be proactive about your health. Learn about your breast and ovarian health. Learn about the risk factors and signs & symptoms for breast and ovarian cancer.

Trusted Healthcare Provider

Having a relationship with a health care provider you know and trust is one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your health care. Click here to find a provider

Higher Risk in the Ashkenazi Jewish Population

In the general population, around 1 in 400 people carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. People of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have a 1 in 40 chance of carrying a BRCA mutation, making them 10 times as likely to carry a BRCA mutation as someone in the general population. Whether you’re a man or a woman, if you have a BRCA mutation then there is a 50% chance of passing the mutation on to your children, whether they are boys or girls. It’s important to note that these mutations significantly increase risk, but are not a guarantee a person will get cancer.

Why is the Ashkenazi Jewish population at higher risk?

Over 90% of the BRCA mutations found in the Jewish community are one of three “founder mutations”. A founder mutation is a specific gene mutation in a population that was founded by a small group of ancestors that were geographically or culturally isolated. Because the population was isolated, the rate of founder mutations in descendants is much higher than it would be if the population were larger and co-mingling with more genetically diverse populations. A large expansion in the population caused the current high frequency of the mutations in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. If you are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, the chance of carrying a BRCA gene mutation compared to the general population is increased tenfold. BRCA mutations can be passed down from either your mother’s or father’s side, and may be associated with any of the following cancers:
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube, peritoneal cancer
  • Male breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Colon Cancer

Ready to take action? Knowledge is power. Take this short quiz to be proactive about your health.

Genes 101

Our bodies are made of many tiny building blocks called cells. Our cells contain a copy of our genome – all of the DNA genetic code we inherited from our parents. Our genome is organized into 46 chromosomes, 23 inherited from mom and 23 from dad. Each chromosome has hundreds or thousands of genes. Each gene has the instructions to make a protein that may control the structure or function of cells, can determine many things including how tall we are or the color of our eyes. Genes also contain instructions for many things inside of us that we cannot see, such as how our bones are formed or how our heart works. Each gene is made up of molecules called nucleic acids (A, T, C, and G). The specific sequence of the nucleic acids holds the instructions that control all the components and their functions in cells.

If the DNA sequence is changed, like a spelling mistake, the instructions may not make sense. The technical term for this change is “mutation,” meaning there is a change to the usual genetic code that may change the instructions stored in the gene. A mutation in a gene that repairs DNA damage or controls cell growth can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Sporadic vs Hereditary Cancers:

Ovarian and breast cancer can be either sporadic or hereditary. Sporadic cancers make up the vast majority (85-90%) of ovarian and breast cancers and are not associated with family history of either cancer or inherited cancer-associated mutations. Sporadic cancers arise from genetic mutations acquired in some cells of the body by events part of normal metabolism and environmental factors. This type of cancer can happen to anyone. Most acquired gene mutations are not shared among relatives or passed on to children.

Hereditary (also known as inherited, or familial) cancers are those that occur due to genetic mutations that are inherited from mom or dad. Other blood relatives may also share these same gene mutations. Parents give one copy of each gene to their children. If a parent has a genetic mutation in a gene, each of their children have a 50% chance of inheriting that mutation. Therefore, even in families with hereditary cancer, not all family members inherit the mutation that is causing cancer, and their risk of cancer is similar to the average person in the general population. Individuals who are suspected to have a family history with high incidence of ovarian, breast, and other cancers may be offered genetic testing to try to find the specific genetic mutation that may put them at risk. Importantly, individuals who do not have a known genetic mutation but have high incidence of ovarian, breast, or other cancers in their families are still considered at higher risk for developing those cancers.

Hereditary cancers often occur at an earlier age than the sporadic form of the same cancer, so experts often recommend starting cancer screening at a younger age for individuals at high risk for hereditary cancer. Hereditary cancers can also be more aggressive than the sporadic form of the same cancer. Individuals who have inherited a gene mutation may be at a higher risk for more than one type of cancer.

BRCA 1 and BRCA 2: Most Common hereditary breast and ovarian cancer

The genes that are most commonly involved in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes are named for their link to breast (BR) cancer (CA), but they are also linked to ovarian cancer risk as well as other cancers. Both women and men can inherit mutations in these HBOC genes. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes that have a usual role in our body of providing instructions on repairing DNA damage and preventing cancer. When a family has an inherited mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, this leads to an increase in cancer risk. Not every man or woman who has inherited a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will develop cancer, but people who have a mutation do have a significanlty increased chance of developing cancer, particularly cancer of the breasts or ovaries.

While breast and ovarian cancers are the most common cancers diagnosed in people with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, the risk of some other cancers is also increased. Men with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have a higher risk of early-onset prostate cancer than men without mutations in either gene. Other cancers seen at increased rates, particularly in individuals with BRCA2 mutations, include pancreatic cancer and melanoma. Researchers are continuing to find new genes that are involved in hereditary breast and/or ovarian cancer so it is important to follow up with a genetic counselor on a regular basis if hereditary breast and ovarian cancer is likely in your family.

Talk to your family about your health history and take the Assess Your Risk quiz here