This week is National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Week. I am pleased and honored to share with you, my dear readers, an important guest post by Sue Friedman, executive director of FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered). Thank you, Sue, for sharing this important information at Nancy’s Point because as is said repeatedly on FORCE’S website, no one should face hereditary cancer alone. Feel free to leave questions or comments for Sue.
Eight Facts About Hereditary Breast & Ovarian Cancer that Could Save Your Life
by Sue Friedman
This week marks national Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Week. We at FORCE hope this week long awareness campaign will reach people who most likely will not consider their risk for cancer during any other time of the year.
I was diagnosed with hereditary cancer – out of the blue – at age 33. Only after treatment and a recurrence of my breast cancer did I learn that I carry a BRCA genetic mutation that significantly increases my lifetime risk for breast, ovarian, and several other cancers.
Like many people who carry such cancer-causing gene mutations, I didn’t have a strong family history of cancer. Nonetheless, there were some factors in my background that should have been red flags to my health care team, putting them on alert to the possibility that I might carry a BRCA mutation.
Had I known at the time about hereditary cancer and genetic testing, I would have been more proactive about pursuing testing, and – given the results I didn’t yet have – may have made different medical decisions prior to, or after my initial cancer diagnosis.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that opportunity.
The decision to undergo genetic testing is a personal one, and there are many valid reasons why a person may choose not to move forward with genetic testing after receiving all the facts. But too many people still lack important, relevant information or mistakenly believe it doesn’t apply to them; losing a potentially life-saving opportunity to be proactive about their own health.
So even if you don’t think it applies to you, please read this blog in its entirety; learn more by clicking on the links below, share with your family, friends, and social network, and discuss it with your health care providers. These eight facts about hereditary cancer and genetic testing have the potential to save your life or the life of someone you love.
1. Genetic mutations linked to an increased risk of cancer (such as BRCA, PALB-2, ATM, PTEN, CHEK2, genes associated with Lynch Syndrome, and many others) are found in people of every race and ethnicity.
2. Although we hear a lot about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, genetic mutations can be linked to many other types of cancer including colon, uterine, pancreatic, prostate, and melanoma. Rare cancers, young-onset cancers, and multiple cancers in one individual also may be associated with inherited mutations.
3. Both women and men can inherit cancer-causing gene mutations, and both men and women can pass such mutations to daughters and sons.
4. A family history of cancer is not necessary in order to undergo BRCA or other genetic testing. The more relatives within a family who have been diagnosed with cancer, the higher the chance of an inherited genetic mutation in that family. However, just one case of ovarian cancer at any age, breast cancer before age 50, triple-negative breast cancer, or pancreatic cancer in a family may be sufficient criteria for genetic counseling.
5. Genetic counselors are health care experts with advanced, specialized training in genetics, risk assessment, and disease risk management. It is important for individuals to consult with a genetics professionals to determine if genetic testing is an appropriate option for them and/or family members.
6. Most insurance companies cover the cost of genetic counseling and testing for people who meet national guidelines. Low-cost testing options and financial assistance programs are available to those who meet certain criteria.
7. People with increased lifetime risk for cancer have access to more and different medical options than people at average risk. Risk management options include increased screening, medication to lower risk, and risk-reducing surgery. The ways in which individuals choose to manage these risks are personal, and there are no right or wrong answers.
8. Genetic testing for people already diagnosed with cancer may change their treatment options. For example, a new targeted therapy, Lynparza, has been FDA-approved to treat women with ovarian cancer who have tested positive for a BRCA mutation and have already received at least three courses of chemotherapy. Genetic test results may also provide access to research clinical trials. Targeted therapies are being studied in other hereditary cancer settings as well.
If you or a family member has been diagnosed with cancer, visit the FORCE website to help determine if the disease may be linked to a genetic mutation, and to access useful information, resources and guidance, including a toll-free helpline, local support groups around the country, our hereditary cancer clinical research search tool, and an active message board community.
Sue Friedman is the Executive Director of Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE). A veterinarian by trade, Sue founded FORCE in 1999 after being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33 and learning she had a BRCA 2 mutation. In 2003 she gave up her veterinary career to become the full-time Executive Director of FORCE.