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Breast Cancer Gene

By: Jillian Risberg Email
By: Jillian Risberg Email

It was a stunning announcement that shocked the world.

Actress and activist Angelina Jolie had an elective double mastectomy because she's a carrier of the gene that causes breast cancer. A leading oncologist explains what that means to you and what you can do.

"There are two breast cancer genes that are called BRCA1 and BRCA2 that are routinely tested for patients that are at high risk of breast cancer," says Dr. Nik Shah, medical director of oncology at Camden Clark Medical Center.

Women with those harmful genes increase their risk of getting breast cancer by 34 to 70 percent, but that doesn't mean everyone should run to get blood work to find out if they're carriers.

"If the family member carries the gene for breast cancer it can pass on to the family members and therefore some women may be a candidate for testing," Shah says.

Only women with a strong familial link need to explore genetic testing with their doctor.

"Close family members means the mother, sister or the grandmother -- or you can have a family member that has more than two cancers," Shah says. "One member can have two sites of breast cancer or can have both ovarian and breast cancer."

Or breast cancer can run straight through the women's side of the family.

Shah says that's three generations of family members that have a history of cancer, such as grandmother, mother and sister.

Patients are advised to have genetic counseling before they do anything.

"They will talk to the patients so they understand the meaning of what's being done, what to expect, what are implications and also getting started with the cost involved," Shah says.

It's a proactive decision that shouldn't be taken lightly, but for some women it can mean the difference between life and death.

"Carry out aggressive what we call screening," Shah says. "You can do a mammogram, you can do an ultrasound in case of ovarian cancer and do CA-125 testing."

If the testing comes back positive patients have a number of options.

"Prevention can be done by doing bilateral mastectomy and patients, women - may also need oophorectomy (prophylactic ovary removal surgery) and it should be done below age 40," Shah says.

Certain drugs are mainstays of breast cancer prevention.

According to Shah, Tamoxifen and Raloxifene have been proven to prevent breast cancer in high risk women.

Aggressive treatment for some women may be the only way.

"Some of the women who carry this gene may need all of those options," Shah says.

Keep the lines of communication open with your doctor, think it over, talk to your family -- and ultimately, make the choice that is right for you if you carry the gene.


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