Agnes MikijaniecBy Agnes Mikijaniec, ARNP, BMH Oncology Department 

There have been great strides in the field of cancer genetics this past decade. It is now considered the standard of care in community and comprehensive cancer programs. However many individuals who would be appropriate for genetic risk assessment are not being tested. Barriers include distance to regional cancer programs, lack of insurance and lack of knowledge. The distance factor has now been answered because in the Spring of 2010, I was one of the 20 cancer care providers in the nation selected to participate in the City of Hope (COH) Cancer Genetics Outreach Program. COH is a regional cancer center in California and leader in cancer genetics working to improve outreach and access to genetic counseling. It received a National Cancer Institute grant to provide cancer genetics training to community cancer providers in rural and underserved areas.

What I Learned About Genetic Counseling

We were trained to obtain family histories, calculate risk for genetic dispositions to cancer, and then provide counseling regarding their risk. I receive continual training and support from City of Hope through participation in their weekly online genetics case reviews and lectures. This allows rural cancer providers such as BMH continued access to experts in genetics to assist with complex cases and maintain competency in this specialty.

Genetic Risk Assessment at BMH

The BMH Comprehensive Breast Care Program plans to introduce genetic risk assessment for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer with Dr Joseph Rosen, the medical director of the program. The BMH Oncology affiliate, Norris Cotton Cancer Center currently offers genetic testing for all cancer risks through their Familial Cancer Program.

Because of the media’s focus on breast cancer and direct-to-consumer advertising, more Americans are learning of the genetic links to breast cancer. Many individuals, however, are unclear on how their own personal or family history relates to genetic risk for cancer.

How Your Family History Relates to Genetic Risk

About 5% of cancers are considered hereditary. Hereditary cancers develop because of a change (mutation) in certain genes that normally protect the body from cancer (tumor suppressor genes). These gene mutations can be passed from one generation to the next. Genetic cancer risk can be passed from mothers or fathers to daughters or sons. For some cancer genes the risk is linked to more than one cancer. For example, the hereditary breast cancer syndrome also causes increased risk for ovarian cancer.

Signs of hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome may include, but are not limited to:

  • Breast cancer at age 45 or younger,
  • Breast cancer in both breasts,
  • Both breast and ovarian cancer in the same woman,
  • Two or more people within a family with ovarian cancer and/or breast cancer, especially if the breast cancer was diagnosed before age 50,
  • At least one family member with breast and ovarian cancer,
  • Breast cancer in men.

The two genes commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancer are BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. A female without any increased risk for breast cancer has a 12% chance of developing breast cancer during her lifetime. An individual with a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation can have a 50 to 85% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and a 20 to 40% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. Testing for the BRCA 1 or 2 genes is performed by a blood test or oral swab. (Unfortunately this testing is not covered by most health insurance.)

Having Genetic Testing for Cancer at BMH Will Benefit Local Residents

Although a positive test can mean an individual has an increased risk for developing cancer, it does not mean the person will definitely get cancer. Conversely, a negative gene test does not mean a person will never develop cancer, but having the expertise available now at BMH will provide a patient with valuable information. If one does test positive for the BRCA gene there are a number of options for decreasing the risk of developing cancer. A specialist in cancer genetics – cancer genetic counselor, geneticist, or risk assessment counselor such as I am – can help guide the individual through the process of discerning cancer risk and the benefits and drawbacks of genetic testing. For more information, call the BMH Oncology Department at 802-257-8221.