As women become more educated about the importance of breast health and breast cancer screenings, awareness of breast cancer gene testing, also known as the BRCA gene test, has also increased due to recent media attention. Understanding the facts about this test is important before deciding if it’s appropriate for you.
Dr. Kelly DeWitt, a Sharp Grossmont-affiliated radiation oncologist, answers questions below about breast cancer screenings and genetic testing.
What is genetic testing for breast cancer?
The genetic test for breast cancer, also known as the BRCA gene test, is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to detect the susceptibility of mutation in one or both of the following genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women with inherited mutations in these genes have a higher risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer compared to the general population of women.
Is the BRCA gene test recommended for any woman who wants to know their risk of developing breast cancer in the future?
The BRCA test is not recommended for every woman because mutations in the BRCA genes are uncommon. Less than 10 percent of breast cancers are attributed to inherited gene mutations. The test is primarily offered to women who are likely to have an inherited mutation, which is identified through family history, or those with a specific type of breast cancer. The test is not routinely offered to women with an average risk of breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
Who should consider taking the BRCA gene test?
People who might benefit from testing are those with unusual cancer types such as very early onset (<45) or “triple-negative” breast cancer, and/or those with a history on one side of the family that includes young breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancers. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has a Family Health History Initiative, which is a good place to get started with family history collection.
How can I use the information about the latest breast cancer screening guidelines to help protect myself from the disease?
The best thing to do is to talk to your doctor, who can help guide you and provide the best advice based on your individual needs and medical history. The latest guidelines from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, suggest that screening mammograms:
- Be performed every other year between the ages of 50 and 74
- Should not start until the age of 50
- Should stop at the age of 75
The newly presented guidelines also suggest that monthly self-examinations should not be taught or recommended. Much of the basis for these recommendations lies in the cost-effectiveness of screening these women in terms of the number of lives saved.
However, the American Cancer Society and most medical societies have not adopted these guidelines and continue to recommend annual screening to begin at the age of 40 for most women as well as continued education regarding self-breast exams. Medicare and most insurance carriers continue to cover an initial baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 and 39 with annual mammograms covered once a woman turns 40.
Please note that Sharp HealthCare does not control or endorse the information presented on external websites, nor do these websites endorse the information found on www.sharp.com.
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About the Expert
Dr. Kelly DeWitt is a board-certified radiation oncologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. She practices out of La Mesa, Calif.