Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
23andme, a genetic testing company that offers a number of services, has announced that they have received FDA approval to test for the breast cancer genes.
According to the company, “The authorization allows 23andMe to provide customers, without a prescription, information on three genetic variants found on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes known to be associated with higher risk for breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.”
Five to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases are believed to be based on genetics. Actress and activist Angelina Jolie tested positive for BRCA1, and in 2014, she revealed her choice to have a bi-lateral mastectomy as a preventative measure. As she discovered, confirmed by the National Cancer Institute, “about 72% of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation and about 69% of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by the age of 80.”
The other cases? Well, there are a number of breast cancer risk factors, including being overweight or obese, smoking, consuming alcohol, using hormone birth control, inactivity, eating unhealthy, age, family history, race, pregnancy, menstruation, and breastfeeding history.
Five percent of breast cancer cases are in women under the age of 40, so though considered fairly rare, younger women should diligently do their monthly breast self-exams, visit their gynecologist yearly, and get mammograms as directed.
In my case, my genetic tests were negative. I have no family history of breast cancer, and I only had a few of the risk factors: I took hormonal birth control pills for seven years, I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never produced milk.
I found my lump by self-exam, and though my mammogram showed nothing suspicious, I sought a surgeon and asked for a biopsy. Thankfully, my breast cancer was caught early. I did make the drastic decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy, feeling it would give me the best chance at a long and healthy life. I was part of the 5 percent of women who had breast cancer under the age of 40.
If a woman tests positive for the breast cancer genes, she should make an appointment with a breast specialist to discuss her options. Some women choose “prophylactic” treatment, meaning, they choose to have a bi-lateral mastectomy. Women who choose a mastectomy may opt for breast implants, prosthetics, or choose not to have breasts or the illusion of breasts at all.
Other women choose a “watch and wait” option, where they are carefully monitored by a breast specialist. This may involve MRIs, mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, and preventative treatments.
According to Anne Wojcicki, the CEO and co-founder of 23andme, “Being the first and only direct-to-consumer genetics company to receive FDA authorization to test for cancer risk without a prescription is a major milestone for 23andMe and for the consumer. We believe it’s important for consumers to have direct and affordable access to this potentially life-saving information.”
So what does the 23andme offering mean for women? If you have had a close, biological relative with breast cancer, the genetic test makes sense. Knowing if you are gene-positive can help you make decisions about your current and future health and family planning. Although it’s scary to hear the news that you are gene-positive, women today have options like never before.
As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and in the case of breast cancer, this is certainly true.