Raising Awareness, Saving Lives (Including Your Own)

Thousands of American women (and hundreds of men) are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. Early detection and treatment are key to treating and containing this disease. Knowing your family history, getting regular exams and avoiding known cancer-causing foods and activities decrease your chances of developing cancer. Additionally, proper diet and exercise, avoiding smoking or using tobacco products, and drinking in moderation can help keep you healthier and reduce the chances of contracting certain types of cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. When detected early before it can spread to other parts of the body, breast cancer can be treated through radiation, drug therapy and surgery, and many cancer survivors live long, healthy lives. If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes in breast tissue, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. Fortunately, eight out of 10 breast lumps are benign, or not cancerous. But women sometimes stay away from medical care because they fear what they might find. Women can take charge of their health by performing routine breast self-exams, establishing ongoing communication with their doctors, and scheduling regular mammograms. Men should speak with their doctor as well if they find suspicious lumps, abnormal skin growths, experience tenderness or experience other changes in their breasts.

For women, a mammogram remains one of the best tools available for the early detection of breast cancer. While women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher risk group, most women who have breast cancer have no family history. If you have a mother, daughter, sister or grandmother who had breast cancer, you should have a mammogram five years before the age of their diagnosis, or starting at age 35. Additionally, genetic testing is now getting a lot of attention, especially with high-profile patients like Angelina Jolie, who recently had a precautionary double mastectomy due to genetic profiling that found her at high risk of developing breast cancer. That case has given rise to many questions about genetic testing, its benefits, and ethical considerations that accompany testing and preventive surgeries.

What is genetic testing?                

Genetic testing looks for specific inherited changes (mutations) in a person’s chromosomes, genes, or proteins. Genetic mutations can have harmful, beneficial, neutral (no effect), or uncertain effects on health. Mutations that are harmful may increase a person’s chance, or risk, of developing a disease such as cancer. Overall, inherited mutations are thought to play a role in about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers.

Cancer can sometimes appear to “run in families” even if it is not caused by an inherited mutation. For example, a shared environment or lifestyle, such as tobacco use, can cause similar cancers to develop among family members. However, certain patterns such as the types of cancer that develop, other non-cancer conditions that are seen, and the ages at which cancer typically develops may suggest the presence of a hereditary cancer syndrome.

The genetic mutations that cause many of the known hereditary cancer syndromes have been identified, and genetic testing can confirm whether a condition is, indeed, the result of an inherited syndrome. Genetic testing is also done to determine whether family members without obvious illness have inherited the same mutation as a family member who is known to carry a cancer-associated mutation.

Inherited genetic mutations can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer through a variety of mechanisms, depending on the function of the gene. Mutations in genes that control cell growth and the repair of damaged DNA are particularly likely to be associated with increased cancer risk.

What do you need to know about genetically inherited diseases and genetic tests?

Here’s a short list of important facts useful to know concerning genetic mutations and testing:

  • Genetic mutations play a role in the development of all cancers. Most of these mutations occur during a person’s lifetime, but some mutations, including those that are associated with hereditary cancer syndromes, can be inherited from a person’s parents.
  • Inherited mutations play a major role in the development of about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers.
  • The genetic mutations associated with more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes have been identified, and genetic tests can help tell whether a person from a family with such a syndrome has one of these mutations.
  • A genetic counselor, doctor, or other healthcare professional trained in genetics can help an individual or family understand genetic test results.
  • A high genetic likelihood of developing a certain type of cancer is not a certainty that a person will develop that cancer. The risks and benefits of precautionary or preemptive surgeries have to be determined on a case by case basis.
  • Often, discovering potential genetic mutations may lead a person to alter behaviors, diet and other aspects of health and wellness that can help improve quality of life and health without undertaking dramatic steps.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!