Genetic mutations: knowing your cancer risk

Just a few decades ago, mothers would have considered certain topics off limits when talking with their daughters.  Today, these kinds of conversations are less taboo, especially when it comes to talking about family medical history. Take time to ask about your family’s medical history, especially for breast and ovarian cancers.

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Mutations can be inherited from either parent and may be passed on. Each child of a genetic carrier has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutated gene.

Your family’s health history may mirror your own and give you a heads up on what you to expect. For example, the likelihood of developing common gynecological conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome greatly increase if a close female relative, such as your mother or aunt, has a history of the condition. Tejal Patel, M.D., leads the high-risk clinic at Houston Methodist Cancer Center and says mothers can influence their daughters screening choices across their life span.

When cancer is present in a family, genetic counselors play a prominent role in helping families understand their risk.  Many of us have heard about BRCA gene mutations that can produce hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome in affected families. Patel says mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes account for only five to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases in women, but the goal is to find the mutation in women before they develop cancer. Patients with either BRCA mutation have a 55 to 87 percent higher lifetime risk of developing breast cancer of (compared to a general population risk of 10 to 12 percent), as well as a 20 to 40 percent higher lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer (compared to a general population risk of less than two percent).

“High-profile figures, like actress Angelina Jolie, have brought this topic to the forefront. Now it is up to all women to continue to increase awareness,” says Patel.

Patel stresses that a simple blood or saliva test can tell a woman whether she’s at a higher risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.  In some cases, a woman with a negative genetic test may still be considered to be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer.  There are other gene mutations (besides BRCA 1 and 2) that may also increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer.  Knowing the risk can help both the patient and the doctor make more informed decisions about a health plan before cancer has a chance to develop.

Patients with BRCA mutations have a 55% to 87% higher lifetime risk of developing breast cancer Click To Tweet

Women should talk with their physicians about testing for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome if they have personal or family history of the following:

  • Breast cancer at age 50 or younger
  • Ovarian cancer at any age
  • Male breast cancer at any age
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry and a personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Two breast cancers in the same person or on the same side of the family
  • Triple negative breast cancer at age 60 or younger
  • A previously identified BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation in the family

Mutations can be inherited from either parent and may be passed on to both sons and daughters. Each child of a genetic carrier, regardless of sex, has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutated gene from the parent who carries the mutation. That means half of the people with BRCA gene mutations are male.

Patel says men should consider testing if they have a personal history of breast cancer, a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or a family member with a BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation. Although male breast cancer is rare, men who carry BRCA mutations are more likely to develop breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Gale Smith

Gale Smith

Public Relations Manager at Houston Methodist
Gale Smith has worked in PR for the past 12 years, having previously worked at a major Houston law firm. Prior to entering public relations, Gale spent seven years in television news as a producer at several Houston stations, including KTRK, ABC 13; KHOU, CBS 11; and KRIV, Fox 26.She received her B.A. in Radio/Television with a minor in Journalism from the University of Houston.
Gale Smith

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Gale Smith

Gale Smith has worked in PR for the past 12 years, having previously worked at a major Houston law firm. Prior to entering public relations, Gale spent seven years in television news as a producer at several Houston stations, including KTRK, ABC 13; KHOU, CBS 11; and KRIV, Fox 26. She received her B.A. in Radio/Television with a minor in Journalism from the University of Houston.