The breast cancer gene, or BRCA, informs a person’s likelihood of getting cancer. People with a family history of breast cancer or BRCA gene mutations, and people with breast cancer, should have a test to determine whether they have the mutation.

Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. However, people with mutated BRCA genes may have a higher chance of getting breast and ovarian cancer.

They may also have an increased risk of prostate and other cancers.

Typically, the genes produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA. When functioning normally, they play a role in preventing breast cancer. However, the altered gene cannot make proteins to repair DNA, leading to uncontrolled cell growth and tumor development.

It is essential that people understand their risk of developing breast cancer, the most common cancer in the United States.

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 284,200 people in the United States will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in 2021. This includes 281,550 women and 2,650 men. Being aware of a potential BRCA gene mutation means a person can take preventive action.

Read more to learn about BRCA gene mutations, the prevalence of breast cancer, and differences in specific populations.

A person in a lab testing for the presence of a BRCA gene mutation.Share on Pinterest
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The BRCA gene is a breast cancer gene that helps determine a person’s chances of developing cancer.

There are two breast cancer genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Everyone has them. When functioning normally, they are tumor-suppressing genes.

A mutated gene is a broken gene. Because the altered BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes cannot repair DNA properly, a person is more likely to get breast and other types of cancer.

Parents pass genes down to their children. This means that people with a family history of BRCA gene mutations are more likely to have the mutation themselves. It is important to note that males and females can pass on the gene. If either parent has a BRCA mutation, there is a 50% chance that a child will have the same mutation.

Learn more about genetic cancer here.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, about 1 in 400 people in the U.S. have BRCA gene mutations.

They report that about 55-65% of women with the BRCA1 mutation and about 45% of those with the BRCA2 mutation will get breast cancer before they are 70 years old.

However, there is no definitive evidence to confirm these figures, and research has yielded varying prevalence rates.

These numbers are significantly higher than the risk to the general population. About 14.8% of women develop breast cancer over their lifetime. Men can also develop breast cancer, but this is rare.

Learn more about breast cancer in males here.

Specific populations have different risks of gene mutations.

One group that is at an increased risk is Ashkenazi Jewish women. Scientists think this results from a founder mutation, which occurs when a small group of socially or culturally isolated ancestors found a group.

Approximately 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women have a BRCA gene mutation.

BRCA gene screening occurs at different rates among different groups, and studies indicate Black women may be less likely to get tested.

A study published by the American Cancer Society found that the BRCA mutation for Black women was approximately double that of non-Hispanic white women in the same age bracket.

The researchers noted that previous research found the survival rate for Black women with breast cancer was lower and stressed the importance of gene mutation testing for people with a family history of breast cancer. The higher number of deaths of Black women is likely a result of health inequity, which includes lack of genetic testing and access to care.

Learn more about breast cancer in Black women here.

According to the National Cancer Institute, anyone with a family history of BRCA gene mutations or breast cancer should seek genetic testing. This is also called genetic counseling. Additionally, people who receive a diagnosis of epithelial ovarian cancer should have tests for inherited mutations.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network has detailed guidance on who should have a test. This includes individuals with:

  • relatives with a known cancer susceptibility gene
  • a personal history of cancer
  • relatives with a history of breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry

Learn more about cancer tests here.

Individuals with any of the risk factors listed above should speak to a doctor or genetic counselor about gene testing. Additionally, they may choose to make specific lifestyle changes to reduce their risk.

It is important to note that these changes do not eliminate the chance of getting breast cancer in people with BRCA gene mutations. Additionally, developing breast cancer does not mean that a person does not adhere to these lifestyle habits.

Maintaining a moderate weight

Increased body weight has links to a higher risk of breast cancer after menopause. The American Cancer Society recommends that people maintain a moderate weight throughout their lives.

Learn more about diet and breast cancer here.

Exercising regularly

Regular physical exercise is essential for overall health. A 2013 study shows it has links to a reduced risk of developing breast cancer and the number of deaths.

According to the American Cancer Society, people should aim for at least 150–300 minutes of moderate activity, or 75–100 minutes of vigorous activity, every week. Moderate activity is equivalent to a brisk walk that causes a slight increase in heart rate and breathing. Vigorous activities are higher intensity exercises, such as running or high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Learn more about the benefits of exercise here.

Limiting alcohol consumption

Excess alcohol consumption has links to an increased risk of developing cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that women who drink alcohol consume no more than one drink per day.

Learn about the risks of heavy drinking here.

Frequent screenings

Individuals should discuss their risk factors with a doctor. They can advise people on their risk factors and screening options and help those with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer to manage associated risks.

Learn about cancer risk and age here.

Taking medication

Those at an increased risk of breast cancer can take medications that either block or decrease the amount of estrogen in the body, which reduces the risk of developing breast cancer.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are two breast cancer genes responsible for repairing damaged DNA that can cause tumor growth. However, people with BRCA gene mutations are more likely to develop breast and other cancers.

Some people are at an increased risk of developing the disease and should consider genetic testing. These people include those with a family history of BRCA gene mutations or breast cancer and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

Frequent breast cancer screenings, lifestyle changes, and medication can help people manage their breast cancer risk.