Who Should be Tested for the BRCA Gene Mutations?
- Advantages and Disadvantages to Genetic Testing for BRCA Mutations
- Additional Resources and References
Women who test positive for BRCA mutations are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Consequently, relatives of these women may also be at increased risk for breast cancer BRCA-positive women should practice monthly breast self-examination, have frequent clinical breast exams (at least once a year), and have a yearly mammogram so that if breast cancer is detected, it may be treated at an early stage. BRCA-positive women should also talk to their physician about beginning screening mammogram at an earlier age, maybe even as early as 25. Some women may also be advised to receive MRIs to screen for breast cancer.
In addition to breast cancer screening, women who test positive for BRCA mutations should consider lifestyle changes such as eating healthier, limiting alcohol consumption, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight. Women may also consider breast cancer prevention with the drug tamoxifen or prophylactic mastectomy (preventive removal of the breasts). However, physicians do not usually recommend prophylactic mastectomy since testing positive for BRCA mutations does not guarantee that a woman will develop breast cancer. Click here to learn more about preventing breast cancer in BRCA positive women.
Genetic testing has been a controversial topic among medical professionals for several years now. Women with a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of genetic testing carefully before reaching a decision. Though most testing centers require genetic counseling prior to testing, all women considering genetic testing should discuss their situation with a counselor or physician.
Advantages to testing for BRCA mutations:
- Women may feel relieved knowing for certain whether or not they are at a higher risk for breast cancer.
- Women with breast cancer may have better responses to certain treatments that are specifically designed for BRCA positive patients.
- Women may take preventive measures to help reduce their risk of breast cancer if they test positive for BRCA mutations (such as making changes in diet, exercising, or taking tamoxifen).
- Other family members may decide if they wish to be tested for BRCA mutations based on the results of a woman’s test. (However, testing positive for BRCA mutations does not necessarily mean a woman will develop breast cancer. She is at higher than average risk for the disease, though).
Disadvantages to testing for BRCA mutations:
- Women may become worried, panicked, or stressed if they discover they have a higher than average risk for breast cancer.
- Women who test positive for BRCA mutations are faced with the difficulty of telling family members (some of whom may also be at increased risk for breast cancer).
- Women who test negative for BRCA mutations may falsely believe they will never get breast cancer.
- Women who test positive for BRCA mutations may have to deal with complications with health insurance (if they are not tested anonymously)
- To date, no studies show that health insurance providers will reduce coverage or cancel a policy based on genetic test results. However, women should be made aware of the possibility.
Regardless of the test results, all women should still take preventive measures to help reduce their risk of breast cancer. These preventive measures include: practicing monthly breast self-examination, having regular clinical breast exams, and having yearly mammograms (at 40 years of age and older). Though testing from BRCA mutations may help identify women who are at a higher risk for breast cancer, 80% of women who develop breast cancer have no known risk factors.
Most physicians recommend against BRCA testing if a woman is not ready to take specific action if she tests positive. Tamoxifen may be used to help prevent breast cancer without knowledge of specific gene mutations.
- To learn more about BRCA mutations and other genetic risks for breast cancer, please visit http://www.imaginis.com/breasthealth/genetic_risks.asp
- The Mayo Clinic offers information on BRCA gene mutations and genetic testing at http://www.mayoclinic.com/.
- FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) provides information and support at http://www.facingourrisk.org
- Dr. Deborah Axelrod, MD and Breast Specialist, provides detailed information on inherited breast cancer at http://www.breastdoc.com/
- For additional information on risk factors for breast cancer, please visit http://www.imaginis.com/breasthealth/bc_risks.asp.
Updated: September 2011