The media has brought a lot of attention to the BRCA genes in the past few years. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and the Kardashian family have highlighted their experiences and their motivations for pursuing genetic testing. Because of this growing attention, it is important to talk about the truths and myths of the BRCA genes.
The majority of cancers are not hereditary, or due to a broken gene that is passed down through the family. In fact, only 5-10% of breast cancers and approximately 25% of ovarian cancers are thought to be due to a broken gene that a person is born with. The BRCA genes account for the majority of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, but there are other genes that are also associated with these cancers.
Both men and women have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When these genes are working properly, they help protect us from cancer. However, if there is a genetic alteration, or mutation, in these BRCA genes, it causes them to become broken and they can no longer effectively protect us from cancer. When the BRCA genes are broken, there is a significant increase in a woman’s risk to develop breast, ovarian, and other cancers. Men can also have broken BRCA genes, which increases their risk for male breast, prostate, and other cancers. Genetic testing is able to detect mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. A person who has a broken BRCA gene has a 50% chance of passing it on to each of their children.
Meeting with a genetic counselor is the best way to determine if a person should pursue genetic testing. Genetic counselors are board-certified professionals with special expertise in genetics. These healthcare professionals are able to assess the likelihood of a hereditary cancer risk in the family, provide education on genetic testing options, discuss the implications, benefits, and limitations of genetic testing for the patient and their family members, and to discuss insurance and legal protections. Genetic counselors are also able to address the myths and misconceptions associated with genetic testing.
For most patients, genetic counseling and testing is empowering. It provides patients with the opportunity to be proactive with their health and/or the health of their family members. However, it is important to discuss the appropriateness and implications of genetic testing with a genetic counselor in order to determine if genetic testing is right for you.
Other types of cancers, including colon, pancreatic, stomach, and more rare cancers, can also be associated with different hereditary causes. A genetic counselor is able to assess your personal and family history to make sure that you are tested for the right genes.
If you have any questions or would like to speak with a genetic counselor, please visit www.nsgc.org to find a genetic counselor in your area.
Ashley Runyon, MS
Northside Hospital Cancer Institute
Hereditary Cancer Program in Atlanta, GA