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Families share just about everything, including your genes. That can be a great thing, and in some cases, it can be concerning, especially if some of your family has been diagnosed with diseases such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer or prostate cancer.

While this may not be at the forefront of your mind when your family is healthy, it can become a concern when there is a new cancer diagnosis in the family. 

Genes vs the Environment: What Is the Cause of Cancer?

Every case of cancer is not caused by a genetic mutation passed through the generations. In many cases it’s just a matter of how your body responds to the environment, your diet and other factors over the years.

When you think of lung or skin cancer, these cancers were likely caused by environmental exposure to chemicals in smoke or in the workplace. Through extensive research, we’ve learned, however, that some cancers are caused by gene mutations that are passed down from generation to generation. Some gene mutations can make someone more likely to develop cancer in the future.

Most genetic markers are minor or inconsequential, but approximately 1 out of every 500 people inherit a mutated BRCA gene that can increase a woman's risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. 

Hereditary Factors that Could Increase Your Risk of Ovarian Cancer

Researchers have found that many different gene mutations are specifically linked to an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The common gene mutation related to ovarian cancer is that of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. If that mutation is present, a woman's risk of developing ovarian cancer increases. 

Why does a mutation to the BRCA gene make you more likely to develop cancer?

Mutations to these genes reduce the ability of the body to repair DNA damage that naturally occurs in most people over the course of their lifetimes. In normal cells, the BRCA genes make proteins that repair damaged DNA. Mutated versions of these genes can lead to abnormal cell growth.

How are BRCA gene mutations identified?

Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are most often identified through standard gene sequencing testing blood or saliva. There are also tests to identify a type of mutation called rearrangements, meaning duplications or deletions that can increase cancer risk. Having a genetic mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene does not mean you will get ovarian cancer or breast cancer. Instead, these tests indicate an increased risk that can lead to preventive actions and more extensive monitoring compared to a person of average risk.

How to Get a Genetic Test for Ovarian Cancer

Genetic testing cannot tell you that certain types of cancer are definitely in your future. However, knowing the genetic issues rooted in your family tree can empower you and your close family members to make informed healthcare decisions. A genetic counselor, like those at Minnesota Oncology, are trained to ask questions that will help them decide if you and your family would benefit from genetic testing for cancer.

If our genetic counselor feels that testing is appropriate, it can be done quickly in our office. Results will come back and the counselor will review what they mean. If the patient has a BRCA gene mutation, you may want to notify family members so they can be tested as well. There’s no guarantee that the gene has passed to everyone so individual testing would be needed. Our genetic counselor can also perform those genetic tests for the patient’s family members.

Be sensitive when telling the family because this can be scary for them, especially before they’ve had a chance to learn more and talk to the genetic counselor. It will be up to them to decide if they’d like to be tested for the mutation. 

What if Other Types of Cancer Seem to Run Our Family?

Consider consulting our genetic counselor if you or a family member meet any of the following criteria:  

  • Personal history of two or more types of cancer
  • A male family member was diagnosed with breast cancer
  • A relative was diagnosed with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation
  • A family member diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer
  • A family member diagnosed with two or more types of cancer
  • Having a personal history of breast cancer before the age of 45
  • Family history of two relatives with prostate or pancreatic cancer
  • Family history of nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome)
  • An unknown family medical history or limited knowledge of that history
  • A breast cancer diagnosis in two or more family members at a young age
  • A history of one or more family members diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50
  • A history of breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer in families of Ashkenazi Jewish descent

While you can’t change your genetic makeup or remove a BRCA mutation, knowing that you may be more likely to develop cancer can help you reduce other cancer risks that you can control. And you can consider other actions that may help screen for and even prevent cancers caused by the BRCA mutation. Your doctor can help with discovering the options for you.

Scheduling an Appointment with Our Genetic Counselors

If you or a family member is interested in genetic testing for ovarian cancer as well as other types of cancer, our genetic counselors in the Twin Cities area are available for a consultation to decide if the testing is appropriate for you or your family.