Learning if you have an increased risk of certain cancers

Testing for hereditary cancer risk

NEW BERN, CRAVEN COUNTY - (Note from NewsChannel 12 anchor Jaime McCutcheon: When my mother died from cancer four years ago, I told myself I'd use every opportunity I had to raise cancer awareness.  Now I'm sharing my story to do just that.)

On Monday, NewsChannel 12 anchor Jaime McCutcheon shared the story of her recent breast cancer scare after her doctor found a lump in her breast.  After a mammogram and ultrasound, doctors determined it was a false alarm.  But because Jaime has a family history of two specific cancers - breast and ovarian cancer - her doctor recommended BRACAnalysis, the testing of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes.

Dr. Chris Taylor, an oncologist at New Bern Cancer Center, explains why the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes are targeted.  

"They are what we call tumor suppressing genes.  You can think of them as policing genes, so what they do is they go along the DNA and they look for mistakes and they correct those mistakes," explains Dr. Taylor.  When mistakes aren't corrected, Dr. Taylor explains that's when cancer can grow.

So who should be tested for gene mutations?  Dr. Beth Garner, who works for Myriad Genetic Laboratory, says look to your family history.

"If there are several family members who have cancer, and even more importantly, if they have cancer of a certain type, that's definitely a signal," says Dr. Garner.

Cancers like breast cancer and ovarian cancer, which are connected to the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes.  Now a new test through Myriad, called MyRisk, looks for mutations connected to eight cancers.

"It looks for genetic changes in 25 mutations that are associated actually with eight cancers," explains Dr. Garner.  Those eight cancers are breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, colon cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma.

So what if you test positive for a genetic mutation?  For the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations, Dr. Taylor explains your increased risk.  "They have a significant risk of breast cancer, anywhere from 50% to 85% chance, or for ovarian cancer, anywhere from 15% to 40% chance.  So that's significantly higher than the general population."

The gene testing once seemed out of range for a lot of people because of the price, but a Myriad spokesperson says more and more insurance companies are now covering it.  Myriad also offers a program that provides affordable testing to qualified people.  You can find more information about that by CLICKING HERE.

But knowing your risk is key.  "If a person can actually identify,say wait a minute, I have the mutation that increases my risk.  There are very specific things one can do to lower that risk overall," explains Dr. Beth Garner.

Pro-active measures like surgery.  In May, we met Katie Kosma, 24, of Jacksonville who had a double mastectomy due to family history.  

"Immediately after having the surgery, it was like the weight of the world was lifted off of my shoulders.  This was my second chance at life," says Kosma.  She says when she's older, she'll also have her ovaries removed to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer.

But it all starts with learning your family history.  "The idea there is to encourage families to talk about their family history, as a group.  We think the holidays are a fantastic time to do that," says Garner.

Myriad has a campaign right now to help you start a conversation about family history with your family.  CLICK HERE for more about the "Just Ask" campaign.

You can also take a quick, online questionnaire that will help you determine if you should consider testing and have the talk with your doctor.  You can find the survey HERE.

Find more information about testing of the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes HERE.

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