National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week

slidesDo you carry a genetic risk for cancer?

Contributed by: Heather Pulaski, MD

It’s very likely that you know a friend or family member who’s a breast cancer survivor. But do you know a breast cancer “previvor”? Not sure what I mean? Well, let me explain. A previvor is a woman who, as of yet, doesn’t have cancer but is predisposed to it because she carries either the BRCA¹ or BRCA² gene mutation. Probably the most famous breast cancer previvor is Angelina Jolie. As you’ll recall, Jolie decided to get a double mastectomy because she tested positive for the BRCA¹ gene mutation.

How do I know if I should be BRCA tested?

The goal of Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week, held this year from September 29 to October 5, is to raise awareness about hereditary cancer. It’s estimated that among the 750,000 Americans who carry the BRCA gene mutation, only 10 percent know they’re at risk. So if you’re a woman with a strong family history of breast, ovarian, pancreatic or aggressive prostate cancer, you should discuss the possibility of BRCA testing with your doctor. In certain cases, BRCA testing is recommended when a breast cancer patient meets certain criteria, such as premenopausal disease, triple negative tumors and other combined, complicated risk factors. It is also recommended for patients with ovarian cancer. By doing so, they can let family members know whether or not they may be at risk for this gene mutation. Communication among family members is critical because the average woman has a less than a 1.5 percent chance of developing cancer in her ovaries, but a woman with a BRCA mutation increases her risk up to 40 percent, and a patient with BRCA² has about a 25 percent risk of ovarian cancer.

I found out I’m a previvor. Now what?

If you’re a previvor, there are things you can do to help to reduce your risk for developing cancer. These include taking certain medicines, routine cancer screenings to catch cancer at its most treatable stage and prophylactic breast and/or ovary removal. And for BRCA positive women already diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a particular class of drugs called PARP inhibitors has been shown to keep patients cancer-free for longer. In fact, a new trial through the University of Cincinnati Gynecologic Oncology Department is evaluating the effectiveness of PARP inhibitors in keeping BRCA positive ovarian cancer patients in remission. Of course, no matter if you’re a previvor or survivor, it’s important to talk with your doctor to determine which course of treatment is best for you.

Know the symptoms of ovarian cancer

While ovarian cancer has often been called the “silent killer,” as it’s difficult to detect, perhaps a more accurate description is “the cancer that whispers.” Though symptoms may be subtle, they do exist. Most ovarian cancer patients experience bloating, pelvic pain, difficulty eating, indigestion and bladder symptoms in the year prior to their diagnosis. So please stay in tune with your body. And if symptoms do appear, talk with your doctor.

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