It’s estimated that one in every eight women in the United States will receive a breast cancer diagnosis sometime during their lifetimes. So it’s understandable why many women come to the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care Cancer Risk Management Program to ask about their risk for hereditary breast cancer.
It’s been wonderful to meet so many proactive women who are taking charge of their health by asking important questions. Many women have expressed concern about breast cancer in their families and want to know whether these risks are hereditary. A “hereditary” cancer means that the cancer is caused by a change, or a “mutation” in a single gene that is passed down in families.
Although women may have “familial cancers,” meaning that multiple family members have had breast cancer, it is estimated that only 5-10 percent of all cancers, including breast cancers, are actually caused by an inherited genetic mutation. Most cancers are considered to be “sporadic,” or caused largely by environmental factors (smoking, sun or chemical exposure, aging, among other factors).
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To mark the occasion, here are a few tips to consider if you’re wondering whether you should be tested for hereditary breast cancer.
Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome is typically caused by genetic mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes; it is estimated that these mutations occur in one out of every 300-500 people. It is estimated that the lifetime risk for breast cancer is approximately 64 percent in women with BRCA1 mutations and approximately 56 percent in those with BRCA2 mutation. Such inherited mutations can be passed down from either the mother’s or father’s side of the family. At least 16 other lesser-known genes may contribute to inherited breast cancer also, so seeing a genetic counselor prior to making the decision to be tested can help ensure that you are tested for the most likely problematic genes.
It’s important to note that having a genetic mutation does not mean a certain person will get cancer. It simply means a person at higher risk for that cancer than the general population. Knowing the level of risk is important because it can help you decide how to manage the risk. Some opt for frequent screenings and surveillance. Other, particularly high risk patients (those with BRCA1 and BRCA2, for example), may undergo preventative surgery to remove their breasts or ovaries.
Our program is designed to help patients who deemed “high-risk” develop a plan to help find any cancer at its earliest stages. My nursing career has taught me that early detection is key to successful treatment.
Who in my family should see a genetic counselor or receive genetic testing first?