Learn more about testing for the breast cancer genes

This information also ran in Sunday’s Life & Style section about testing for the breast cancer genes.

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT GENETIC TESTING FOR BRCA

A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both skyrockets if she inherits a harmful mutation in genes — called BRCA1 and BRCA2 — linked to those diseases.
It’s important to understand, however, that most of these cancers are not hereditary. BRCA gene mutations are responsible for about 5 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers. Also, not everyone who is BRCA-positive will get sick.
Still, those with these mutations do face a significantly higher risk.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a BRCA-positive woman is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman in the general population (whose risk is about 12 percent). The average woman’s odds of getting ovarian cancer are about 1.4 percent, compared to 15 to 40 percent of women with the BRCA mutation. That knowledge allows people to make educated decisions about their future, which may include steps to reduce their cancer risk, such as increased cancer screenings, prophylactic surgery (like removing healthy breasts and ovaries) and cancer-prevention drugs.
So is a cancer gene test right for you?
Una Hopkins, a nurse practitioner certified in genetics at White Plains Hospital’s Dickstein Cancer Center, says that those with the following in their background might want to consider it:


• Ashkenazi Jewish heritage with relatives diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer. The frequency of BRCA mutations is much higher among Jews of Eastern European descent, with about 1 in 40 people in this ethnic group carrying one of the gene abnormalities.
• A strong family history of breast cancer, particularly at an early age. Hopkins says that two first-degree relatives (mother, daughter, sister) diagnosed with breast cancer — especially if any were diagnosed at 50 or under — is a suspicious pattern. “Those are the key people you want to look at,” she says.
• A first-degree relative with bilateral breast cancer.
• A family history of ovarian cancer, regardless of age.
• Breast cancer in a male relative.
Hopkins also stressed that you must look at your father’s side when examining your family history. “You get your chromosomes half from your mom, half from your dad,” she says. Men can have a BRCA mutation, too, which can mean an increased risk of developing breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer, as well as melanoma.
Hopkins adds that speaking to a professional counselor is crucial for anyone thinking about this testing, since results can carry a heavy psychological weight. And the right decision for one person may not be the best choice for another.
“You want to talk to them about all of their options,” she says.

LEARN MORE ABOUT BRCA

The following resources may help those who are BRCA-positive or considering testing for mutations in the genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer:
FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered): This organization’s website features detailed information about cancer research, assessing your cancer risk, treatment options, how to find cancer genetics specialists and more. 866-288-7475; www.facingourrisk.org. For more information about the group’s Westchester chapter, contact co-coordinator Melissa Frederick at 914-584-3394 or melissag@facingourrisk.org.
Bright Pink: This nonprofit targets prevention and early detection of these diseases in young women while providing support and outreach for those who are high-risk. www.brightpink.org.
Basser Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania: A $25 million gift from alumni Mindy and Jon Gray established this institution earlier this year, located within the university’s Abramson Cancer Center at the Perelman School of Medicine. It is the first comprehensive center to focus specifically on inherited BRCA mutations. 800-789-7366; www.penncancer.org/basser.

Heather Salerno

Special writer Heather Salerno covers arts, entertainment and pop culture for LoHud.com and The Journal News. Heather regularly posts on ABC's hit show "Lost," as well as other television-related news.