Health Beat with Dr. Alicia Arnold: Breast cancer & preventative mastectomy

Angelina Jolie made headlines last week with her announcement that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy to lower her risk for breast cancer. On Monday morning, we learned more about breast cancer in our Health Beat with Dr. Alicia Arnold.

Meghan Kulig: Can you tell us more about the breast cancer genes that we've been hearing so much about?

Dr. Arnold: BRCA1 and BRCA2 stand for breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and 2 respectively. These are genes that we all have in our DNA. When there is a mutation, or abnormality, the patient has a higher risk for certain types of cancer, including breast and ovarian.

Meghan Kulig: What percentage of breast cancers are due to these mutations?

Dr. Arnold: A minority of them. About 5% of breast cancers and 10-15% of ovarian cancers are thought to be due to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Most women who get breast cancer and ovarian cancer do not have these two mutations.

Meghan Kulig: Are there other mutations that increase an individual's risk for cancer?

Dr. Arnold: Yes, there are multiple other known gene mutations associated with higher risk of cancer, but inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 account for the majority of hereditary breast cancers. There are other genetic mutations that increase the risk for different forms of cancer. For example, there are multiple known gene mutations that increase the risk for colon cancer.

Meghan Kulig: Who should be tested for the breast cancer mutations?

Dr. Arnold: Your healthcare provider can help you examine your family history and personal history of cancer and decide if the test is a good idea for you. Some ethnic groups also have higher frequencies of the mutations. Your healthcare provider can also refer you to a genetic counselor, who can give you more information about genetic testing and what the results may mean. It's important to note that men can also have these mutations.

Meghan Kulig: A positive result would bring some difficult decisions.

Dr. Arnold: Yes, because even though the risk is much higher, not all women who test positive for the mutation will get cancer. Some women after careful consideration opt for surgery, as in Angelina Jolie's case, but prophylactic surgery has risks too. The choice is different for everyone. Hopefully this story raises some awareness to a very important health issue.

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