Angelina Jolie made a very difficult decision to have a double mastectomy upon discovering that she had inherited a mutation to her BRCA1 gene. Many personal factors went into her decision to have her breasts removed. Ms. Jolie had watched her mother die from breast cancer and that certainly influenced her decision.
What are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 Genes?
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that keep your cells stable and prevent them from experiencing uncontrolled growth. BRCA stands for breast cancer susceptibility gene. When these genes mutate they can increase the risk for breast cancer exponentially. Not all mutations of BRCA1 or BRCA2 are bad. Only the harmful mutations increase your cancer risk.
Who is at Risk for These Mutated Genes?
Both men and women are at risk for having a mutated version of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Having a close family member that has been diagnosed with the harmful mutation increases the risk that you will have the mutation. Make note, not all BRCA1 and BRCA2 harmful mutations are inherited.
What Does it Mean if I Have One of These Mutated Genes?
According to Cancer.gov, having a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene means you are 5x more likely to develop breast cancer and 10x more likely to develop cervical cancer. A mutation in these genes will also increase your risk of uterine, pancreatic, colon, prostate and testicular cancers. Although other genetic mutations can cause breast cancer, the BRCA genes are responsible for most of the cases of inherited breast cancer.
Will Having Preventative Surgery Keep Her From Getting Cancer?
No. Having the breasts removed is not a 100% guarantee that she will not develop breast cancer. Breast cancer can develop in the tissues and lymph nodes surrounding the breasts. When a doctor removes the breasts it is almost impossible to remove all of the breast tissue. Having a double mastectomy has greatly reduced Ms. Jolie’s risk of developing breast cancer, but she will live under the shadow of her mutated BRCA1 gene for the remainder of her life.
Who Should be Tested for the BRCA gene Mutation?
One reason to be tested is if you have a close relative that has tested positive for a BRCA mutation. Another reason is if your mother or sister has had breast cancer. Even if they have not been tested, you may want to have the test. The test is a done via a blood draw. Usually the doctor will advise you to undergo genetic counseling before you are tested.
What Happens When a Person Tests Positive for the BRCA Mutation?
A positive test result does not mean you will definitely get cancer. The positive result only indicates what your risk for developing breast cancer may be. Upon receiving your results you and your physician will address all of the available options. Some options include: Monitor with frequent cancer screenings, prophylactic surgery, preventative chemotherapy and lowering your risk through lifestyle changes.
Not all mutations to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are harmful. Even a diagnosis of a harmful mutation of a BRCA gene is not a death sentence. The discovery of the mutation is only an indicator of an increased risk for cancer. Many factors, such as family history and environmental exposures will come into play when making a decision regarding treatment options associated with a BRCA mutation. Each person diagnosed with a harmful BRCA mutation will have to weigh the risks and benefits of each treatment option.