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What Can Your Genes Tell You?

To test or not to test, that is the question many women (and men!) face when considering their genetic risk for certain types of cancer.  Advances in genetic testing now allow people with a family history of breast and ovarian cancers to determine whether or not they carry one of two gene mutations that increase their cancer risk. How do you know whether you should consider testing?  And what do you do if you test positive?  While there is no straightforward answer to these questions, you can arm yourself with the right information to make an educated decision about your health.

The average woman has a 12% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime.  However, if you carry a mutation in breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 or 2, (known as BRCA1 and BRCA2), you are five times more likely than the average woman to develop breast cancer.  According to the National Cancer Institute, your risk of having one of these mutations is higher if:

  • two or more close family members (parents, sisters, or children) have had breast or ovarian cancer
  • A close family member had breast cancer before age 50
  • A close family member has had cancer in both breasts
  • A family member has had both breast and ovarian cancer
  • You are of Eastern European Jewish heritage

It is important to understand that just because you have the genetic mutation, it doesn’t mean you will develop cancer, just as testing negative doesn’t guarantee a cancer-free future.  The information provided by genetic testing, should you opt to pursue that route, can provide you with the opportunity to take preventative measures to reduce your risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.  Dealing with a positive test result can often be as traumatic as receiving a cancer diagnosis.  Just having the harmful genetic mutation doesn’t mean you will get cancer, and the uncertainty about what to do can be emotionally taxing.  Discuss your options with your doctor or a genetic counselor who has experience helping people in your situation.  They may recommend early and more frequent screening, as well as discuss the pros and cons of preventative surgery with you.

Unfortunately there is no easy answer to the question of whether or not to get tested, and every individual should educate themselves to the best of their ability and speak with trained professionals and their loved ones before making a decision.

Facts and statistics above provided by the National Cancer Institute. For more information, visit their website at www.cancer.gov and view their factsheet BRCA1 and BRCA2: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing.