How Screening Your Genes Can Help Prevent Cancer

In 2013, Angelina Jolie announced her decision to have a double mastectomy at age 37. Angelina chose to remove her breast tissue after learning that she carries the BRCA1 gene, a mutation that sharply increases her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. News of Angelina’s decision brought awareness to the use of hereditary cancer screening as a tool for cancer prevention. If we can recognize gene mutations early, can we take extra measures to prevent cancer?

The answer is yes. There are several recognized gene mutations that run in families. For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Megan Grunander sat down with Michelle Money on ABC Good4Utah to discuss genetic testing for two of them: BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“If you carry the BRCA gene, your risk of developing breast cancer is up to 87% by age 70. Your risk of developing ovarian cancer shoots between 20-40%. Men are also at an increased risk of developing breast or prostate cancer” says Dr. Grunander.

Should I consider getting a hereditary cancer screening?

Dr. Grunander encourages people to explore their family history of cancer. If any of these situations apply to you, you qualify for a BRCA test:

  • Two relatives with breast cancer—one occurring before menopause
  • Three relatives with breast, pancreatic, or prostate cancer at any age
  • One relative with ovarian cancer
  • One male relative with breast cancer

The test offered in Dr. Grunander’s office is a blood panel that screens for 25 gene mutations including BRCA1 and BRCA2. The BRCA mutation is linked not only to breast cancer, but ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancers as well. After your blood is drawn, it’s sent to a lab for analysis. Patients can expect results in three to four weeks.

What if I’m a carrier of BRCA1 or BRCA2?

If you carry either BRCA gene, your screening tests will begin earlier and your physician will change how he or she manages your health. For example, screening mammograms begin 15 years sooner for BRCA carriers to detect cancer development early. BRCA carriers receive mammograms every six months (opposed to yearly) and may also require MRIs and other imaging.

Risk-reducing surgery for BRCA carriers

Dr. Grunander discusses prophylactic (risk-reducing) surgeries with BRCA carriers between the age of 35 and 40. Not all people choose a prophylactic surgery, but considering this procedure can cut your risk of dying from breast cancer by 56% and ovarian cancer by nearly 80%.