Angelina Jolie's announcement that she had a double mastectomy because she has a genetic mutation that puts her at high risk of breast cancer may have a lot of women wondering if they should be tested for the BRCA gene. Here are some frequently asked questions, as well as resources for more information:
What is the BRCA gene?
BRCA1 and BRCA2 belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors. Testing can determine if you have a mutation in these genes that greatly increases a woman's risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
What does the test involve?
The test requires a blood sample, which is typically sent away for analysis. It usually takes several weeks to get the results.
What does the test cost, and is it covered by insurance?
The tests can cost as much as several thousand dollars. Major insurers offer coverage, standard under the Affordable Care Act.
What can I do if I test positive?
Many women choose prophylactic surgery to reduce their risks. This includes removing healthy breasts with bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, the procedure that Jolie had. Women may also remove healthy fallopian tubes and ovaries. Another option is special screening, using MRIs that are more sensitive than mammography.
Does surgery mean I won't get cancer?
Women with this genetic mutation can greatly reduce their risk of breast and ovarian cancer with surgery, but not eliminate it entirely. And both women and men who test positive face increased risks of other cancers.
What risks do men face?
Men with the BRCA mutation face may face increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, testicular cancer and prostate cancer. They also can, like women, transmit the mutation to their children
Should I be tested?
Talk to your doctor or a genetic counselor about your family history. The BRCA mutation is rare — only one in every 350 to 500 people will test positive. You are more likely to have it if your family has any of the following: Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, a relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer, breast cancer in both breasts or breast cancer in one breast before the age of 50.
IF YOU GO
The Tampa Bay chapter of the advocacy group FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) will hold an open meeting for women concerned about genetic risk of cancer, May 19 at 1 p.m. at Square 1 Burgers and Bar, 3701 N. Henderson Blvd., Tampa. For more information: www.FacingOurRisk.org.
For information on genetic counseling, go to www.informedDNA.com.
Sue Friedman and Rebecca Sutphen's 2012 book, Confronting Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer, Johns Hopkins University Press, is $14.59 at amazon.com.