Actress Christina Applegate made headlines in 2008 when she opted for a double mastectomy after she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. In 2013, there were more headlines when Angelina Jolie had a preventive double mastectomy.
Both women made their decisions based on advice and recommendation from genetic counselors. Each had a specific gene mutation increasing the risk of developing breast cancer. Both women also had extensive family histories of breast cancer.
The cutting edge technology of genetic testing and genetic counseling are not futuristic options available only to the wealthy and famous. Today, they are a part of mainstream medicine and available right here in Phoenix.
Genetic testing might be called for if several first-degree relatives (mother, father, sisters, brothers, children) developed cancer — particularly if they had the same type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Other unusual features that could prompt genetic screening could include:
- Family cancers sometimes linked to a single gene mutation (for instance, breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers)
- Family members who developed cancer at younger ages than normal for that type of cancer
- Close relatives with rare cancers linked to inherited cancer syndromes
- A physical finding linked to an inherited cancer (such as having many colon polyps)
- A known genetic mutation in family members who had genetic testing.
Cary Armstrong, a certified genetic counselor at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s, explained, “Genetic counseling offers the true opportunity for prevention. As of right now, prevention means people who carry a gene mutation can either choose to be screened very closely in the future or consider having risk-reducing surgeries.”
Armstrong described one local case in which after genetic counseling, a 36-year-old mother of three sons chose to have her breasts and ovaries removed to reduce the risk of developing future cancers. The woman had the same gene mutation as Applegate and Jolie.
Gene research offers the potential to identify diseases long before they become an imminent health threat. Understanding the cancer genome may also help a doctor select the best treatment for each patient.
Approximately 10 to 15 percent of all cancers are due to an inherited predisposition.
If you have a family history of certain types of cancer or if you would like to talk with a genetic counselor about your potential risk factors, you can contact an expert at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s.
The University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s provides genetic counseling and testing for cancers including breast, ovarian, colon, prostate, thyroid, brain, pancreatic cancers, and melanoma.