Monday, 31 October 2011 by Keith Bahlmann
The factors that affect breast cancer risk are numerous. Some of those factors are simple.
For example, being a woman and getting older automatically increases the risk for breast cancer.
Other factors are more complex.
Among the more complex risk factors for breast cancer is genetics.
Every cell in the body is made of genetic material, or genes.
These genes affect nearly every function of the body and, when working properly, help the body stay healthy. However, sometimes genes fail to perform their job at full capacity.
When this happens, an error known as a mutation occurs.
These mutations can be inherited or spontaneous, and either type of mutation can increase a person's risk for illness and disease.
In the case of breast cancer, scientists have pinpointed two genes that, when mutated, can play an important role in the development of breast cancer.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes everyone has, and some people inherit a mutated form of BRCA1 or BRCA2 that increases their risk for breast cancer.
However, according to the American Cancer Society, such inherited gene mutations account for just five to 10 percent of all cases of breast cancer in the United States.
Mutated BRCA genes can be spontaneous and even occur in men.
Men who carry these abnormal genes are at greater risk of prostate cancer, and men carrying the mutated BRCA2 gene have an increased risk of breast cancer as well.
While the discovery of the gene linked to breast cancer is an important one, concerned men and women might want to know they have inherited the gene mutation.
A genetic counselor can help individuals decode their family's health history and interpret the results of genetic testing.
For those interested in genetic testing, the counselor will need a thorough family health history and will then have men and women go through pre-test counseling to determine if it's necessary to go through with genetic testing.
During the pre-test counseling, a counselor will explain the procedure, what its risks and benefits are, its cost, and other potential ramifications, including what patients will do once they learn the results of the test.
Learning the results can be an especially emotional moment, and pre-test counseling helps men and women prepare for learning those results.
For those who go through with the genetic testing, a blood sample will be taken and results are typically available within three weeks. The counselor will then help patients interpret the results. The National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov) can help interested parties find a genetic counselor.