Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here! And while all of us are reminded to get our routine mammograms and breast exams, many of us who are younger than 40 dismiss the idea that breast cancer could affect us anytime soon. Since we don’t require mammograms yet we aren’t really at that much risk…right? Although the risk for breast cancer increases with age, certain genetic components (BRCA Gene Mutations) can put even young women at risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Knowing your risk can help you make informed decisions even before a breast cancer diagnosis. It may even change your breast cancer screening routine and prevention options.
So, this October, if you are in your twenties or thirties, instead of just wearing a pink ribbon, racing for the cure, or making sure that you have had your annual breast exam (all of which are great!), take the time to know your genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Since routine ovarian cancer screening isn’t recommended, knowing your genetic risk may be even more important for this type of cancer. Here are 3 things you need to know.
1. What are BRCA Gene Mutations and how do they increase my risk for Cancer?
Everyone has BRCA Genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. These genes are actually designed to protect the body from cancer, but if a genetic mutation (negative change) occurs in either of these genes, they are unable to prevent breast, ovarian, and other cells in the body from dividing too quickly or in an uncontrolled way. This lack of regulation increases the risk for cancer. Most cases of cancer are not due to BRCA gene mutations. Only 5-10% of breast cancers and 10-15% of ovarian cancers are linked to BRCA mutations. And, while most cases of breast cancer are not due to BRCA mutations, if you have a mutation you are much more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer (50% of women with a BRCA 1 or 2 mutation will develop breast cancer and 30% will develop ovarian cancer by the time they are 70 years old).
2. How can my family history help me decide if I am at increased risk for a BRCA Mutation and should be tested?
Most people do not need genetic testing to determine if they have a BRCA mutation, but if after reviewing your family history you find a strong pattern of breast and ovarian cancer, you may want to meet with a genetic counselor to discuss your testing options. If you already know that your mother or a sibling has a BRCA mutation, you have a 50% chance of having one as well. So, while it isn’t guaranteed, the likelihood is high. The only way to truly know if you have a BRCA gene mutation is to have a genetic test done.
If you are diagnosed with a BRCA mutation it isn’t because of anything that you have done. Drinking too much soda, avoiding the gym, carb loading, smoking…none of these poor choices have given you a damaged BRCA gene. Unfortunately, you inherited your damaged gene (BRCA 1 or 2 or both) from either your father or your mother. YES, I SAID FATHER! Many women think that they only need to know their maternal breast cancer history, but this is not the case. Knowing the breast cancer history on your father’s side is equally important.
Here are some of the important things to look for in your family history:
-Multiple Relatives with Breast Cancer
-Any Relatives with Ovarian Cancer
-Relatives with Breast Cancer before the age of 50
-A Relative with breast cancer in both breasts
-A Male relative with breast cancer (yes, men have boobs too!)
-A Relative with a BRCA mutation
3. What if I do have a BRCA Gene Mutation…What then?
If you are diagnosed with a BRCA Gene Mutation you have options for additional screening tests, more frequent screening, and cancer risk reducing medications and surgeries. While finding out that your risk for breast and ovarian cancer is high may be scary, it can also be life saving. Knowing this information has allowed many women to detect cancer at earlier stages, allowing for better outcomes. In other women, risk reducing surgeries have prevented them from developing breast and ovarian cancers at all.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Cancer Prevention and Control and Bright Pink have created a great website, KNOW BRCA, that allows women to self-assess their BRCA risk. You can create an online account for free (it is a secure/confidential page), log in your family history, and answer some easy questions. The assessment will then create a BRCA mutation risk score specifically for you that you can discuss with your family physician or OB/GYN. Simply click on the link above to get started. Don’t just cross your fingers and hope for the best. Take your health into your own hands and encourage other women in your life to do the same. It’s never to early to be proactive about your health!
From The Mom in Me, MD