Women with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome represent a unique group who are diagnosed at a younger age and result in an increased lifetime risk for developing breast, ovarian and other cancers. This review integrates recent progress and insights into the molecular basis that underlie the HBOC syndrome. A review of English language literature was performed by searching MEDLINE published between January 1994 and October 2012. Mutations and common sequence variants in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 (BRCA) genes are responsible for the majority of HBOC syndrome. Lifetime cancer risks in BRCA mutation carriers are 60-80% for breast cancer and 20-40% for ovarian cancer. Mutations in BRCA genes cannot account for all cases of HBOC, indicating that the remaining cases can be attributed to the involvement of constitutive epimutations or other cancer susceptibility genes, which include Fanconi anemia (FA) cluster (FANCD2, FANCA and FANCC), mismatch repair (MMR) cluster (MLH1, MSH2, PMS1, PMS2 and MSH6), DNA repair cluster (ATM, ATR and CHK1/2), and tumor suppressor cluster (TP53, SKT11 and PTEN). Sporadic breast cancers with TP53 mutations or epigenetic silencing (hypermethylation), ER- and PgR-negative status, an earlier age of onset and high tumor grade resemble phenotypically BRCA1 mutated cancers termed 'BRCAness', those with no BRCA mutations but with a dysfunction of the DNA repair system. In conclusion, genetic or epigenetic loss-of-function mutations of genes that are known to be involved in the repair of DNA damage may lead to increased risk of developing a broad spectrum of breast and ovarian cancers.