For women, yearly mammograms starting at age 40 is the most effective method for detecting breast cancer. However, what if your family history or genetic history put you at an increased risk of developing breast cancer? A woman’s risk of developing cancer, particularly breast cancer, can increase greatly if she has a harmful genetic mutation.
We spoke with Robyn Sachs, MD, from the Beth Israel Deaconess Breast Center to find out more about the BRCA gene and women who may be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Q: What is the BRCA gene?
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins. When either of these genes is mutated or altered it may not function as it’s supposed to and they may develop genetic alterations, leading to cancer. A harmful BRCA mutation can be inherited from either a mother or father. Each offspring of a parent who carries a BRCA mutation has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the same mutation.
Q: How can I determine if I have a gene mutation?
DNA tests are available to determine and look for a specific mutation that is already present in another family member. Tests are also available to check for any possible mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2.
Q: Who should consider genetic testing for BRCA mutations?
It may be most informative for individuals who currently have breast or ovarian cancer to consider DNA testing first, if they are willing to be tested. Then, DNA testing for mutation should be performed only when the person’s family history suggests the possible presence of this mutation. Harmful BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are rare in the general population, especially if your family’s medical history does not present any breast cancer diagnoses.
Q: What can someone with a positive result do to decrease their risk of cancer?
A positive result indicates that that person has inherited a harmful mutation of the BRCA gene and that they have an increased risk of getting cancer. It does not tell whether or not that individual will in fact develop cancer.
Your health care provider may recommend enhanced screening for cancer, which can increase the chance of detecting breast cancer at an early stage, therefore increasing the odds of treating it successfully. Screening can include clinical breast exams, mammograms and/or MRI. Some women make good candidates for undergoing prophylactic surgery, which involves removing “at-risk” tissue. Another option for decreasing cancer risk is chemoprevention or using drugs or vitamins to reduce the risk of cancer. Be sure to speak with your health care provider about the best option for you.