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BRCA Testing Gets a Lot of Attention. Is It Right For You?

Amanda Schott, MS, is a clinical cancer genetic counselor at the Inova Translational Medicine Institute (ITMI). Read Amanda Schott’s profile.

The Washington Post recently published a profile of Alejandra Campoverdi, a former White House staffer who decided to run for Congress in her native Los Angeles. While she didn’t win that nomination, Campoverdi is making headlines beyond politics. She has openly discussed the fact that she tested positive for BRCA2, a genetic mutation that significantly increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

Whether or not you’re in the public spotlight, it can be challenging to navigate the world of genetic testing and to move forward after a positive test result. But genetic counselors are here to help.

BRCA Genes and Other Genes

I appreciate public figures such as Campoverdi, who are raising awareness of genetic testing by sharing their personal experiences. Indeed, in recent years we’ve seen many patients who have heard about the BRCA genes and come to us asking to be tested.

What people often don’t realize is that there are many other known genes, besides BRCA1 and BRCA2, that increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. We can test for those, as well as genes associated with other cancers, such as colon cancer. While a positive test doesn’t guarantee a person will develop a certain cancer, it does increase their risk.

We usually recommend testing to people who have either a personal history or a family history of several cases of the same or associated types of cancer (such as breast, ovarian or pancreatic) on the same side of the family. In Campoverdi’s case, her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all had breast cancer. That made her a strong candidate for testing.

In many cases, the family history isn’t quite so clear. Genetic counselors help patients examine their family history to decide if genetic testing makes sense.

Reducing Cancer Risk

Family history is not the only thing to consider. To decide if testing is the right choice, we talk with patients about their healthcare goals, their feelings about genetic testing and how they might respond to a positive test result.

For many patients, having knowledge of their risk allows them to take steps to protect their health, such as having a preventive mastectomy. Other patients aren’t ready to take such a step, but having the result helps them consider healthcare options, including increased and/or earlier cancer screening. Still others aren’t in a place where they want to know yet, but might revisit testing in the future.

Genetic testing is a wonderful tool that can help people reduce their cancer risk through preventive care. But there is no one-size-fits-all testing plan. Every patient’s life is different, and genetic counselors can help each patient find the right approach for them.

Learn more about the Inova Cancer Genetics Program.

 

 

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