Are you at risk for Breast Cancer?

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month! Dr. Vicky Jones, medical oncologist at North Star Lodge Cancer Care Center, and genetic counselor Susie Ball appeared on KIT 1280 on Oct. 14, 2014, to discuss breast cancer risks and genetic screening.

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About 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetimes – more than a quarter million women estimated this year. Roughly 40,000 women die from the disease annually, making it the second leading cause of cancer death in women behind lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Actress Angelina Jolie grabbed headlines last year for her announcement that she had undergone a double mastectomy after testing positive for a genetic mutation that increased her risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

  • Recent studies show that Jolie’s decision, now dubbed the “Angelina Effect,” resulted in a surge in women in the United Kingdom and Canada undergoing genetic tests for breast cancer in the months since. Researchers also found that it was women with a family history of breast cancer who were being appropriately referred for additional screening.

However, most women with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease. Only 5-10 percent of those cancers are inherited, and sometimes, the fact that Aunt Betty had cancer doesn’t necessarily mean her niece will develop any cancer, let alone the same cancer.

So when does “a family history” mean you should undergo genetic testing?

The key to genetic testing: genetic counseling. Any woman who believes she may have inherited a gene mutation and be at higher risk could benefit from genetic counseling. Ultimately, a counselor can help to determine whether screening is necessary, which test or tests to perform, and help to ensure it’s paid for by insurance. Most insurance policies will cover genetic testing if it’s documented as worthwhile.

What factors does a genetic counselor consider when reviewing a cancer patient’s case?

Genetic counselors consider several factors, including:

  • the type of cancer (whether it’s the same cancer the family member experienced)
  • unusual cases, such as a male family member with breast cancer
  • bilateral cancer, meaning the cancer is in both breasts or in both ovaries
  • early age of onset

Women who inherit the gene change have a higher chance that they will get cancer than other people, but that doesn’t mean they will get it. There isn’t any one breast cancer gene.

Does a gene mutation change how cancer is treated?

If a gene is found to be abnormal, it doesn’t change how breast cancer is managed. It changes how frequently medical providers monitor for cancer in patients who are currently cancer-free, or how they monitor for new cancers in patients already diagnosed, she says.

What should women do in the meantime?

The most common risk factors for breast cancer are things that can’t be changed: being a woman, age and ethnicity. Women should continue their own due-diligence with self exams and mammograms to catch cancers early. And live a healthy lifestyle – maintain a healthy weight, get proper nutrition and exercise and limit alcohol.

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