Is It Normal to Feel Like a Time Bomb Because I Have Breast Cancer in My Family?

Question: There is breast cancer in my family. Is it normal to feel that I am like a time bomb, just waiting to be told I have breast cancer?

Answer:I think that's very normal. Many, many women who come to us for counseling say that they've just spent their whole life waiting for this to happen, that it's not a question of whether they'll develop breast cancer, but when.

Some of the things that make them particularly anxious are when they reach the age that, say, their mom was diagnosed with breast cancer or when their children reach the age that they were when their mom was diagnosed or even if their mom died at a certain age -- when their children reach that age. When a sister or somebody in your own generation is diagnosed with breast cancer or additional members of the family are diagnosed, it certainly increases women's anxiety about this. And that's where seeking counseling by someone who is specially trained and interested in familial cancers is a very valuable thing to do to help clarify what your risks may be.

We can do genetic testing now to help clarify the risk and you test first an affected family member, so that gets a little bit complicated. One of the things that is extremely valuable is to just sit down and map out the family tree and make a pedigree so that you can graphically see who's had cancer and who hasn't and how old they were when they were diagnosed.

I think it's also important for people to clarify their risk because if your anxiety level is so high that you're afraid to go and do what's appropriate for screening, which is get your clinical breast exams and your mammograms, then that's not where we want people to be. We certainly need to get people's anxiety level at a point where they can get through the screening process and do what's important for monitoring their health care and looking for breast cancer to find it earlier. So it's very valuable to try and clarify risks and get people's fear levels at a place where they can get comfortable with doing their screening.

Next: What is a Cancer Risk Assessment and Counseling Program for Breast Cancer?

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