Back in 2013, actress and director Angelina Jolie published an op-ed article in The New York Times about her experience with BRCA testing, a method of diagnosing an individual’s genetic risk for breast or ovarian cancer, which ultimately led to her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. In the time since, BRCA testing has become a more widely recognized concept, but who exactly can benefit from it?
“BRCA testing is a blood test that examines an individual’s DNA for possible inherited genetic mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes,” says Amy Vertrees, M.D., a board-certified general surgeon associated with Maury Regional Medical Group Surgery in Columbia, who conducts BRCA testing and genetic counseling. “If a mutation is identified in either gene, there is a greater — though not guaranteed — risk of that individual or a member of their family developing breast or ovarian cancer.”
According to a study cited by the National Cancer Institute, 72 percent of those with the BRCA1 mutation and 69 percent of those with the BRCA2 mutation will develop cancer by age 80, while 44 percent of those with the BRCA1 mutation and 17 percent of those with the BRCA2 mutation will go on to develop ovarian cancer.
“The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes produce proteins that suppress tumors,” Dr. Vertrees says. “When the genes are mutated, there is a greater possibility that the body’s cells may not be capable of repairing damage as normal, which therefore increases an individual’s cancer risk.”
Before you run out for a BRCA test, however, it is important to first consider genetic counseling, Dr. Vertrees says. BRCA testing is generally recommended only for those with a personal or family history, which can be examined and discussed during an appointment with a specialist like Dr. Vertrees. According to the National Cancer Institute, some indicators among family members of a possible BRCA mutation can include but are not limited to:
- Breast cancer diagnosed before age 50
- Cancer in both breasts in the same woman
- Both breast and ovarian cancers in either the same woman or the same family
- Multiple breast cancers in the family
- Cases of male breast cancer
Ultimately, BRCA testing is not a decision to be made lightly. Talk with your doctor or a specialist in genetic counseling about whether your personal or family history could warrant BRCA testing.
Amy Vertrees, M.D.,
is a board-certified general surgeon with interests in breast, hernia, gallbladder and colon surgery. Dr. Vertrees practices at MRMG Surgery located at 1222 Trotwood Avenue, Suite 603, in Columbia, and offers genetic counseling services and BRCA testing.