Genetics and Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

Genetics and Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

Posted on: October 4, 2016

Only about 5–10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary or caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child. If there happens to be an error in a gene, then that same mistake will appear in all the cells that contain the same gene. It would be like having an instruction manual and all the copies have the same typographical error.

Mercy Nurse Manager Barb Williams | Cancer Survivor

BRCA 1 vs BRCA 2

Most of the inherited breast cancers are associated with two abnormal genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. Abnormal BRCA 1 or 2 may account for up to 10% of all breast cancers. The average woman in the United States has about a 1 in 8 or about 12% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. A woman with BRCA 1 or 2 or both can have up to an 80% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Women with abnormal BRCA 1 or 2 genes have an increased risk of developing other cancers such as ovarian, colon, pancreatic and melanoma. Men can also have abnormal BRCA 1 or 2 genes.

Know Your Risk Factors

Risk factors that may suggest you are at increased risk for an abnormal breast cancer gene are:

  • You have a blood relative (grandmothers, mother, sisters, aunts) on either side of the family who had breast cancer diagnosed before age 50.
  • There are both breast and ovarian cancers in the same side of the family or in a single individual.
  • You have a relative(s) with triple negative breast cancer.
  • There are other cancers in your family, such as colon, pancreatic, uterine, prostate, melanoma.
  • Women in your family have had cancer in both breasts.
  • You are of Ashkenazi Jewish (Eastern European) heritage.
  • You are African American and have been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35 or younger.
  • A man in your family has had breast cancer.
  • There is someone already in the family with a known abnormal breast cancer gene (if one family member has an abnormal gene it does not mean that all family members will).

It is very important to know your family health history. If you think you may have risk factors that place you in this category, talk to your health care provider. 

A Healthy Lifestyle Lowers Your Risk

If you have an abnormal gene, or even if you do not and you want to keep your risk as low as possible, there are lifestyle choices you can make:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit alcohol
  • Eat nutritious foods
  • Never smoke (if you do, quit)

Williams Helps Others Through Breast Cancer Journey

Barb Williams is the nurse manager for both 7 and 8 Main. She is an active participant in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and Making Strides, which support cancer patients throughout their continuum, their caregivers, and loved ones. Williams is a strong advocate for cancer screenings focused on early detection and living a healthy lifestyle to reduce risk factors.

I have been a breast cancer survivor for 17 years. I credit my faith in God, my positive attitude, my husband, family, friends and the excellent doctors for helping me get through this difficult journey. My treatment plan included surgery, intravenous chemotherapy and an additional oral chemotherapy drug for 5 years. I have become a coach, mentor and support person to so many breast cancer patients over the years, and I am always willing to listen and offer guidance or seek assistance for them. Looking back, it would have been very beneficial to me to have a Nurse Navigator Program like we do now at Mercy to answer my questions, listen to my concerns, and guide me through the various testing, doctor appointments, and treatments I encountered.

My physician recommended that I get genetic testing because my mother died at age 38 of breast cancer. I had no reservation in completing the genetic testing and was very relieved to find out that I did not have the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes.

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