Ovarian cancer develops when healthy cells in your ovaries mutate, or change in genetic structure. The mutated cancer cells then begin multiplying rapidly. This can cause them to spread throughout your body.

Ovarian cancer is hard to detect, so it’s often found in its late stages. The earlier it’s detected, the better chance you have of long-term survival. Assessing your risk factor can help you in early detection. The BRCA gene mutation has shown increased rates of ovarian cancer. However, ethnicity may also play a role in your chances of carrying a BRCA mutation. 

What is BRCA?

The BRCA mutation comes in two forms: BRCA1 and BRCA2. You can be a carrier of just one mutation or both. These genes produce tumor suppressor proteins. When they mutate, the protein is no longer there to suppress tumor growth. Abnormal cells will begin to grow and multiply at a rapid rate, creating tumors. The BRCA1 mutation increases your risk of ovarian cancer by 25 to 65 percent. The BRCA2 gene mutation increases your risk by 10 to 25 percent.

The gene mutation can be carried in both men and women, so it can be inherited from either your mother or your father. The BRCA mutation is linked not only to increased risk of developing ovarian cancer but breast cancer as well.

Ethnicity and Family History

Genetics plays a vital role in the passing of the BRCA gene. But ethnicity may also play a role in your chances of being a carrier. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer and an ethnic link, you should talk to your doctor about being tested for the BRCA mutation. The BRCA mutation has a greater risk among those of Ashkenazi Jewish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Icelandic descent.

  • Ashkenazi Jewish: Compared to other ethnic groups, the Ashkenazi Jewish population has the highest risk for ovarian cancer. This population has a high prevalence rate—1.2 percent—of the BRCA mutation. That’s more than double the general population. The rates are even higher in families with a history of ovarian cancer, up to 45 percent. If you’re Ashkenazi Jewish and have a family history of ovarian cancer, you should speak to your doctor about genetic counseling.
  • Caucasian: When linked with a strong family history of ovarian cancer, the BRCA1 mutation is detected in 25 to 40 percent of the general population. BRCA2 can be found 6 to 15 percent of the time.
  • African: People of African descent, including African-Americans, with a family history of ovarian cancer can find the mutation in 16.3 percent of the population for BRCA1 and 11.6 percent for BRCA2.   
  • Hispanic: As with the other populations, family history plays a role along with ethnicity. With a family link and Hispanic descent, the BRCA1 mutation can be found 16 to 23 percent of the time.
  • Asian: When there’s a strong family history, BRCA1 can be found 11.5 percent of the time and 13.2 percent of the time for BRCA2. This is the lowest out of all the ethnic populations.

Genetic Counseling and Testing

If you have a strong family history and ethnic link to BRCA, you should talk to your doctor about genetic counseling and testing. If you’ve already been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you may also want to find out if you have either of the two BRCA gene mutations.

A doctor can test you using a simple blood test, and a genetic counselor will help interpret the results for you. A positive result can be disheartening, but it can help you talk through all your preventative options with your doctor.