I remember when my mother shared with me the emotion she felt as she sat with the genetic specialist unpacking details about our family’s too cozy relationship with cancer. My mom explained how she cried as she disclosed one family member after another who had been stricken by cancer, many of whom
succumbed to the disease. It was only as I sat in the same “hot seat” revealing names of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother and yes, my mother who fought many battles with numerous types of cancer, mostly breast cancer, that I could relate to her anguish describing in such detail how it rumbled through generations of kin like a wave crushing a shoreline.
I have spent much of my adulthood with a sense of inevitability when it comes to breast cancer. So many of the women in my family have had breast cancer so I always assumed it was not "if" but "when" I would receive the same devastating news. I have been getting mammograms since I was 30 years old due to my increased risk. One of the biggest fears with every negative test result has always been that somehow the cancer had gone on undetected.
Due to the high rate of cancer in my family, my doctor asked me to participate in genetic testing that evaluates the likeliness of getting certain forms of cancer based on lifestyle data and carrying the gene for specific cancers. I sat stunned as the doctor revealed that I in fact do not carry a gene mutation that would put me in a higher risk category for a multitude of cancers, unlike some of my relatives. Of course, there are environmental sources but it seems that genetics would not cause cancer and that information, admittedly, is still challenging for me to process as I have always assumed it was quite literally, part of my DNA.
Although a family history of breast cancer means a higher risk, most women with a family history of breast cancer do not have an inherited gene change that highly impacts their risk. Still, an inherited gene change is more likely in women with a strong family history of breast cancer, especially if the family history also includes other cancers, such as ovarian, pancreatic, or prostate cancer. The risk of having an inherited syndrome is also affected by:
How close the affected family member is to you (Cancer in close relatives such as a mother or sister is more concerning than cancer in more distant relatives. Other family members are also indicators but not as much as close family relatives)
How many family members are affected
How old are your relatives were diagnosed (Younger age is more of a concern.)
I am obviously thrilled with the results of my testing and mostly relieved that the gene mutation that has haunted my family will not pass on to my daughters from me. My only sadness upon hearing the results was not being able to share the good news with my mom who eventually lost her hard fought battles with cancer in March of 2019. Although I have not inherited the gene mutation does not mean my brothers have not so they would have to pursue their own testing if they wish to do so.
If you are looking for additional information about genetic testing, contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Genetic Testing for Heredity Breast and Ovarian Cancer.