When it comes to taking care of our health, asking questions never hurts. But is it always worth a visit to your doctor? We’re asking experts to weigh in on your burning questions—from feminine to general health and everything in between, so you can get advice from a pro before you go. The doctor will see you now.
As women, we’re more apt to develop certain cancers—simply because of our gender. When you’re a female looking to stay on top of your health game, taking heed of your family’s history of cancer is crucial.
After all, unlike eating well and exercising regularly, sex is a factor we can’t change. We’ve got what we’ve got.
Overall, cancer is the leading cause of death in females, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two of the most significant diseases for women are breast and ovarian cancers. The National Cancer Institute shares that 12 percent of women will develop breast cancer, while 1.3 percent will develop ovarian cancer.
How do we find out our risks? Dr. A. Nicky Hjort, M.D., OB-GYN at Peninsula Primary Care in California, offers a play-by-play on just how much genetics play a role in your feminine health.
Q. How much does my family history matter?
Your family background serves as the guideline for your personal approach to your own feminine health.
“If you have one or more first-degree relatives who develop breast and/or ovarian cancers, your risk is increased,” Dr. Hjort says. “The younger the individual was [when] diagnosed with cancer, the greater the risk.” The Susan G. Komen Foundation pegs any age below 50 as an age worth raising a red flag.
Your risk also amplifies the more relatives are diagnosed. BreastCancer.org notes that having one diagnosed first-degree relative doubles your risk. Two diagnosed first-degree relatives increases your risk by five times.
Q. What genes should I be concerned about?
The spotlight is on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The National Cancer Institute says that these produce tumor suppressor proteins which fix damaged DNA and preserve the cell’s genetic makeup. When a mutation occurs in one of these genes, the tumor suppressor proteins fail to do their thing. The result? Genetic variations that may develop into cancer.
“These genes are responsible for 5 percent of breast cancers and 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers,” Dr. Hjort says. Additionally, BRCA 1 mutations have also been linked to cancer of the fallopian tube, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Lynch syndrome is another familial factor worth mentioning. While this inherited genetic disorder typically increases colon cancer risk, it can also up the risk for uterine and breast cancers. To summarize all of this: “The specifics of the family history really do matter,” Dr. Hjort says.
However, it’s crucial to remember that BRCA1 and BRCA2 are responsible for such a small percentage of cancers. This means that a familial trend of breast or ovarian cancers may be correlated with factors other than genes. “Even with a strong family history, a woman doesn’t necessarily carry one of those genes,” Dr. Hjort says. This is where knowing the details about your genetics is useful.
Q. Can I get tested for these genes?
Thanks to technology and medical advances, genetic testing is available for women with familial risk. The Susan G. Komen Foundation recommends touching base with a genetic counselor before going forward with testing. Genetic testing is only useful to women who have a family history of cancers.
Genetic testing is done with a simple blood test. “It will look for BRCA1 and BRCA2, along with the specific variations,” Dr. Hjort says. The particular variation will further determine your risk and the subsequent action plan.
For another way to assess your familial risk, Dr. Hjort recommends an online tool developed by the National Cancer Institute. The Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool helps you delve deeper into your risk from the comfort of your couch. Of course, this tool is designed to supplement routine health maintenance; always discuss the details with your doctor or gynecologist.
You can also send a spit sample to Color. Color analyzes thirty genes—including BRCA1 and BRCA2—to help women and men understand their risk for the most common hereditary cancers, including breast, ovarian, colon, and pancreatic cancer. It costs $249, but it's super-simple, and a genetic counselor will even call you to discuss the results with you for free.
Q. I received my test results, and I have the gene. What now?
“If you do have one of these mutated genes, you’ll need increased surveillance,” Dr. Hjort says. “This means additional testing and more routine physical examinations, such as mammograms and pelvic ultrasounds.”
Dr. Hjort, for instance, suggests that a woman with a mutated gene should receive a mammogram and MRI scan each year, starting at age 30 or younger. She should also receive a clinical breast exam twice a year. Starting these tests at such an early age will increase the chances of stopping cancer as soon as possible, should it ever develop.
“Blood testing for hormone markers associated with gynecological cancers are also available,” Dr. Hjort adds. Depending on your personal risk, a genetic counselor or gynecologist can help you decide which hormone-based tests you should take.
Does breast or ovarian cancer run in your family? Have you ever received genetic counseling or testing for it? Share your experiences below, or leave your health question for a future installment of The Doctor Is In.
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