If there was a test that could give you more insight into your breast cancer risk, would you take it? Or would having that information add too much worry to your life? Genetic testing for breast cancer can offer very important information about your genetic makeup and its impact on your risk for developing breast cancer – as well as your family’s risk for developing breast and other cancers. However, genetic testing is not for everyone. To find out if it is for you, let's take a look at what genetic testing means, who should get tested, the pros and cons, and how to get started.
What is Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer?
About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes (mutations) passed from parent to child. Genetic testing involves looking for those inherited mutations. The most common test used analyzes whether or not mutations have occurred to either the BRCA1 gene or the BRCA2 gene.
It is important to keep in mind that positive results are not a breast cancer diagnosis but rather an indication that you have a gene mutation that greatly increases your risk of developing breast cancer in the future. It is also important to understand that genetic testing for breast cancer can still provide useful information for your family even if you have already been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Who Is a Good Candidate for Genetic Testing?
There are several factors you should consider when deciding whether or not genetic testing for breast cancer is right for you. Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation have a 50 to 85 percent risk of developing breast cancer before the age of 70. If you or the family members on either side of your family meet one or more of the following criteria, genetic testing may be beneficial for you:
- Triple-negative breast cancer before the age of 60
- Breast cancer before the age of 50
- Male breast cancer at any age
- Ovarian cancer at any age
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage with a history of cancer
- 3 or more relatives with breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, or aggressive prostate cancer
Other indicators that might mean genetic testing could be helpful include a history of cancer across multiple generations, developing cancer at a young age, and one person being diagnosed with multiple forms of cancer.
As mentioned earlier, studies show that the chances of acquiring cancer from an inherited gene mutation are low. However, it does still occur and the above factors help determine whether or not you are at a high enough risk to warrant getting genetic testing. A genetic counselor will be more than happy to talk with you further if you feel like you might be a candidate.
Limitations of Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
Like everything else in life, there are pros and cons to getting genetic testing for breast cancer. Before making a final decision, it is important that you take time to think it through with great consideration. Remember, just because it is recommended, it is still a personal choice.
It is important to understand that genetic testing is not a road map that tells you exactly what will and will not happen. Even though genetic testing is constantly improving it does have limitations. Receiving a positive result does not guarantee that you will develop that particular cancer and a negative result does not guarantee that you will not develop that particular cancer.
With that said, it does give more insight as to whether or not you have a higher than normal chance of developing that specific cancer during your lifetime and affords you the opportunity to take preventative measures. On the other hand, there are instances in which the results are inconclusive, which can result in feeling anxious rather than relieved. This is why genetic counseling is strongly encouraged to help you and your family deal with the range of emotions and psychological impact of genetic testing.
It is important to note that genetic testing is not just for those who have not been diagnosed with cancer. It can also be a helpful way of indicating whether relatives might want to be tested. If you have a genetic mutation, then your children are likely to be candidates for testing. A genetic counselor can help you determine the best path for you to take based on your concerns, family history, medical history, etc.
How Genetic Testing Works
Genetic testing in itself is very straightforward. You will give a small sample of blood, which will be sent to the lab for DNA analysis. This can take up to several weeks to receive results. There are 3 possible types of results you can receive from the DNA Analysis.
- A positive result means you carry the gene mutation that increases your risk of developing breast cancer.
- A negative result means you do not carry the gene mutation, but it does not mean that you will not develop a non-hereditary form of breast cancer down the road.
- An ambiguous result, which means a mutation has been found but it is unknown as to whether or not that particular mutation leads to a higher risk of breast cancer.
Does Insurance Cover Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer?
Sometimes, finances are a concern for people thinking about undergoing genetic testing for breast cancer. How much is it going to cost? Will my insurance cover any of these expenses? The good news is that under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to cover women who meet certain criteria that show there is a genuine hereditary risk of a gene mutation for breast cancer. A genetic counselor can help you work with your insurance company and navigate the financial side of genetic testing to find an option that best suits you.
Are You Ready for Breast Cancer Genetic Testing?
If you believe genetic testing for breast cancer is right for you and your family, you can easily schedule an appointment at Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) with one of our genetic counselors. Please note that you do not need to be a current patient of VOA in order to undergo genetic testing at one of our cancer centers.
Before testing, you will complete a short family background survey that will help your genetic counselor select the best gene panel for you. Your genetic counselor will then go over your family and personal medical history with you as well as discuss your genetic testing options. After the results are received, the genetic counselor will carefully evaluate the test results and then schedule a time to discuss them.
The physicians and genetic counselors at VOA can help determine if genetic cancer testing is right for you. To make an appointment, please contact us at the location most convenient for you.