Deanna's Discoveries: Are my genes to blame?

October 04, 2018 06:27 PM

Why? That's the question that plagues so many breast cancer patients. 

Why did I develop cancer? 


For some, it's in the genes. Five to 10 percent of breast cancers are hereditary. Studies show most women undergo genetic testing after a breast cancer diagnosis, but who else should be tested? 

I answer that question, and more, in this edition of Deanna's Discoveries.
I had stage four Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when this picture was taken. I was 21 years old and had no idea this would be the first of four cancer battles.

Two years later, I was diagnosed with adult leukemia. 

Then, in 2010 doctors found a cancerous tumor in my right breast.  And finally, in April of this year, a different cancer found in my left breast. 

One woman. Four cancers.  

Doctors suspected I had some kind of genetic mutation that increased my cancer risk so they recommended genetic testing.

"I believe it is much better to know than to not know," argues Dr. Michelle Shayne, director of the Hereditary Cancer Screening and Risk Reduction Clinic at Wilmot Cancer Institute.

She says, like me, if you had cancer before age 50 or many of your family members have had cancer, you should talk to your primary care doctor about genetic testing. 

But for many, genetic testing is terrifying.

"But you want to know because if you've inherited it. It's there, and you want to do something about it," said Dr. Shayne.

That's because some genetic mutations dramatically increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
"It can be upwards of in the 80's  [percent]  lifetime risk," said Dr. Shayne. 

Compare that to women without the mutation who have only a 12 percent lifetime risk.

If you have a genetic mutation, there are medications that reduce your cancer risk and you can opt for more frequent screenings. But surgery provides your best odds for reducing your cancer risk. 

"There is no other risk reducing modality that we have in 2018 that is as effective as mastectomy," said Dr. Shayne. 

In fact, some studies indicate mastectomy of healthy breasts reduces your risk of breast cancer by more than 90 percent.

But for some, that might be a tough decision. Every patient must evaluate whether it's right for them.  

It's tough.

When I got my own genetic test results, I was shocked. They are negative for all nine pathogenic variants tested. 

I don't have any of the tested mutations that increase my risk for breast cancer. But I got it anyway.  Twice. And we don't know why, proving there's still much to learn about why we get cancer and how we prevent it. 

It's important to note that federal law forbids employment discrimination or the denial of health insurance based on your genetic test results. 

But it does not protect you from discrimination when buying life insurance. 


Deanna Dewberry

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