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Learn the Facts About Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer

The goal of breast cancer screening, including mammography, is to catch breast cancer early when it is easier to treat. Genetic testing for breast cancer can help you understand your risk so you can decide to have earlier mammography screenings or, in some cases, treatments or procedures that prevent breast cancer. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, CHRISTUS Health is here for you. We provide comprehensive cancer care at a variety of locations.

Who Needs Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer?

The most common type of genetic testing for breast cancer looks for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA genes. These can increase your risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends speaking with your physician about genetic testing if you have a family history of breast cancer or have breast cancer yourself.

Your physician will evaluate your risk and may refer you for genetic counseling. A genetic counselor can further assess your likelihood of having an inherited genetic mutation that increases your breast cancer risk. That is important before deciding whether to undergo genetic testing because most women with breast cancer in their family do not have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to family history of breast cancer, several factors may make you a candidate for genetic testing for breast cancer, the ACS reports, including:

  • being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • having been diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age or more than once
  • family history of ovarian, pancreatic or prostate cancer

Next Steps After Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer

Once your results are ready, your physician and genetic counselor can help you understand what they mean for you and your family. If testing found a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, your physician may discuss options with you, including:

  • having surgery to remove the breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes
  • healthy steps you can take to reduce your breast cancer risk
  • taking medications that can lower your breast cancer and ovarian cancer risk
  • undergoing enhanced and/or more frequent screening

The presence of a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation does not guarantee you will develop breast cancer. It just means your risk is higher. Likewise, negative or inconclusive results do not necessarily mean your risk is average, according to the ACS. For example, you could have a non-BRCA mutation that increases your risk that did not show up in the test. 

Why You Should Not Skip Your Screening

Genetic testing for breast cancer can shape your screening strategy. Screening is the search for breast cancer when you do not have symptoms — in other words, when cancer, if it is present, is likely to be small. Finding cancer before it has a chance to grow and spread makes it easier to treat.

The gold standard of breast cancer screening is the mammogram. For most women, regular mammograms are the most effective way to find breast cancer early. This specialized type of X-ray cannot find every potential breast cancer every time. However, women who have regular mammograms may need less invasive treatment, and a cure is more likely.

The ACS recommends that women at average risk of breast cancer start undergoing annual screening mammograms no later than age 45. Some may wish to start as early as 40. Women may switch to every-other-year mammograms beginning at 55, if they wish.