The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that only a limited number of women should receive genetic testing to see if they are at increased risk of breast cancer.
This announcement comes on the heels of heightened interest in genetic testing after actress Angelina Jolie's announcement last May that she underwent a preventative double mastectomy because she carried an abnormal BRCA1 gene.
While it’s true that BRCA mutations increase breast cancer risk, there are many BRCA variants where the risk is low or unknown. Harmful mutations are changes in the BRCA genes that prevent the gene from functioning. Variants of uncertain significance are changes in the BRCA genes where not enough information is known yet to determine whether they cause an increased risk for cancer.
According to the task force, only two or three women in 1,000 will have a mutation that could lead to breast cancer. And only 10 percent of breast cancer is hereditary breast cancer.
Maybe you’re wondering: if you’re one of the 10 percent, why not find out? While genetic testing can help you make informed decisions about managing your health, it may provide limited information about an inherited risk for disease. If no genetic mutations are found with genetic testing, screening and prevention recommendations are based on family history of cancer.
Knowing you have a mutation can also cause fear and anxiety. Guided by an unclear genetic test, some women may undergo unnecessary surgery in order to prevent a cancer risk they never had.
It’s important to meet with a certified genetic counselor before proceeding with genetic testing, says Melanie Corbman, MS, LCGC, licensed certified genetic counselor at our hospital in Philadelphia.
A certified genetic counselor can thoroughly review your personal and family history of cancer and let you know whether you meet the criteria for testing. If it’s recommended, a genetic counselor can determine which test would be appropriate, explain the risks and benefits of the test, and interpret the results for you and your family members.
Not all women are candidates for BRCA testing, says Corbman. National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Guidelines recommend testing for any woman diagnosed with: breast cancer at age 50 or under, triple negative breast cancer at age 60 or under, or ovarian cancer.
BRCA testing would also be recommended for individuals with a strong family history of breast, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancers. Certain populations, such as people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, are at increased risk of carrying a BRCA mutation.
Learn more about genetic testing at our hospitals.