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Could breast cancer lurk in your genes? A Certified Genetic Counselor shares what you need to know.


Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States. And while most breast cancer patients have no family history, approximately 10% of breast cancer cases are due to harmful defect in their DNA that is passed from generation to generation. That number may seem low, but the risk is high for women whose genes carry defects that predispose them to breast and other cancers. In fact, the average woman has about a 12% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime; however, the chance of developing breast cancer if someone has a defect in one of these genes may be as high as 80%.

The two most common breast cancer genes are the BRCA1 and BRCA2. There are at least 11 additional genes that may be associated with breast cancer in families. Normally, every cell in our body has two copies of each gene, one of which is inherited from our mother and one of which is inherited from our father. A mutation or defect needs to happen in only one copy of the gene for a person to have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. If someone is found to have a defect in one of the breast cancer genes, there is a 50% chance they could pass it on to their children. There is also a 50% chance that siblings will have inherited the same defect. This is where Genetic Counseling and Testing can help.

Genetic counseling is used to identify individuals and families at increased risk of cancer to promote awareness, early detection, and cancer prevention. It may also be used to guide treatment and follow-up options in those already diagnosed with cancer. A genetic counselor will review a patient’s information to determine whether or not genetic testing is indicated.

In a typical genetic counseling session, the following will be reviewed:

  • Your medical history
  • Your family history
  • The risks, benefits and limitations of genetic testing, including cost and potential knowledge that you carry a gene mutation
  • What you will do with the information once you know the test results
  • Impact of this information and how it may affect your family
  • Discussion of your risk for developing cancer, as well as options for high-risk screening and cancer prevention

At that point, the Counselor will help determine if Genetic Testing is appropriate. Typically, Genetic Testing will be recommended for those who have a personal and/or family history of the following:

  • Breast cancer diagnosed at an early age
  • Triple negative breast cancer diagnosed at age 60 or younger
  • Two or more breast cancers in one individual
  • Male breast cancer at any age
  • Ovarian cancer at any age
  • Multiple relatives on the same side of the family with breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and/or prostate cancer at any age
  • Breast or pancreatic cancer in an individual with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry

Understanding whether breast cancer is hereditary can be a powerful tool in managing one’s health because it can help provide a clear picture of cancer risk for you and possibly members of your family – leading to a more proactive approach to cancer screening and prevention. So little in life is within our control, but when it comes to understanding your genetic risk for cancer – knowledge is power.

If you have questions or would like to discuss genetic counseling and testing, speak with your doctor or contact CaroMont Health’s Genetic Services at 704.834.3672.

Categories: Physician's Blog