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According to an article recently published in the International Journal of Cancer, women with breast cancer who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer have an increased risk of subsequently developing chronic leukemia.

Because of increasing understanding of the role genetics plays in the development of certain cancers, family history of cancer is gaining more research attention. Patients who are at a higher risk for certain cancers due to family history may benefit from frequent screening for that specific cancer or from preventive measures. The hope is that greater understanding of genetic links may contribute to more individualized and efficient screening processes.

Researchers from Switzerland recently conducted a study to evaluate data including women with breast cancer and potential risks associated with a family history of the disease. This study included 4,397 patients who had been diagnosed with breast cancer between 1990 and 2004. Family history of breast or ovarian cancer was recorded, and patients were monitored through 2005 for diagnosis of leukemia. Patients were considered to have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer if at least one first or second-degree relative was diagnosed with breast and/or ovarian cancer. Leukemia rates were compared among patients with a family history (positive family history) and those without a family history (negative family history).

  • Overall, patients with breast cancer, regardless of family history, had approximately three-times the risk of developing subsequent acute (fast-growing) leukemia compared with the general population.
  • Compared with the general population, the rates of chronic leukemia were not greater among patients diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Within the group of patients with breast cancer, those with a positive family history had an approximate 11-times greater risk of developing chronic (slower-growing) leukemia compared with those with a negative family history.

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The researchers concluded: “Breast cancer patients with a family history of breast/ovarian have an increased risk of secondary leukemia, both compared to the general population as well as to breast cancer patients without family histories.” Patients diagnosed with breast cancer who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer may wish to discuss their individual risks with their physician, as well as potential screening for leukemia.

Reference: Verkooijen H, Fioretta G, Rapiti E, et al. Family history of breast or ovarian cancer modifies the risk of secondary leukemia after breast cancer: results from a population-based study. International Journal of Cancer [early online publication]. October 31, 2007.

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