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Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer: Knowing Your Risk

Publication: Palestine Herald-Press

While most cancer happens by chance, about five to ten percent of cases are hereditary. Hereditary cancers are caused by a harmful variant in a gene that runs in families and may be passed down from parents to children, causing a higher risk for cancer.

If you have a strong family history of cancer, consult with your physician about considering a genetic risk evaluation. Learning if you have inherited a harmful variant in a cancer gene can help you take steps toward early detection and prevention.

Why are some cancers inherited?
All cancers are caused by harmful changes or variants in genes. Genes are like blueprints our body uses to grow and function. Cancer genes work to protect our bodies from developing cancer. When a cancer gene contains a harmful variant, the gene cannot function correctly and does not protect against cancer as well as it should. Usually these harmful variants are acquired over the course of a person’s life. However, sometimes they can be inherited from one or both parents and increase the chance of developing certain cancers that can be passed down to the next generation.

Factors associated with hereditary cancer

  • Multiple cancers in one person
  • Cancer diagnosed at a young age
  • Multiple family members with the same type of cancer
  • Cancer in multiple generations
  • Family member with a harmful variant in any cancer gene
  • Rare cancers or cancers in the less affected gender (e.g., male breast cancer)
  • Cancer in paired organs (e.g., both breasts, both ovaries, both kidneys)
  • More than one childhood cancer in siblings

What to expect during a genetic risk evaluation?
A genetic risk evaluation is done by a trained medical professional to determine your risk for developing cancer, to make genetic testing recommendations, and to decide appropriate medical management. A genetic evaluation may include:

  • Medical History: A detailed review of your personal medical and family history. This information helps determine your risk of developing cancer, appropriate medical management, and if genetic testing would be useful to help clarify your cancer risk.
  • Counseling: Before having genetic testing, you should be counseled about the risks, benefits, and limitations of genetic testing and cancer risk assessments, to help you make an informed decision about whether or not testing is the right choice for you.
  • Testing: Genetic testing looks at a set of your genes to see if you have any harmful variants that increase your risk for cancer. Insurance companies usually cover the cost of testing if you have a personal or family history that is concerning for hereditary cancer.
  • Family Risk: If a harmful variant is found, other family members are encouraged to consider genetic testing as well. The information from genetic testing helps family members make decisions that could prevent cancer and save their lives.

Benefits of Genetic Counseling and Testing

  • Relief from uncertainty
  • Understand your cancer risk
  • Make informed medical and lifestyle decisions
  • Provide helpful information for relatives

 Risks of Genetic Testing

  • Difficulty coping with cancer risk
  • Impact on family and personal relationships
  • Concern about privacy or discrimination
  • Cost of testing and recommended medical care

Who should have hereditary cancer genetic testing?
Before doing hereditary cancer testing, you should meet with a genetics counselor who can review your personal and family history, determine if genetic testing would be helpful for you and/or your family, and decide the best test for you. Individuals with cancer are usually better candidates for genetic testing than their family members who have not had cancer. However, ask your physician for a genetic evaluation referral if you or anyone in your family are at risk or if you have a specific concern about your family cancer history.

For more information on breast cancer and genetic testing, visit TexasOncology.com or Texas Breast Specialists at texasbreastspecialists.com.

This article appeared in the Palestine Herald-Press.

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