Ever since Angelina Jolie bravely declared in the New York Times that she had genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes, followed by preventative mastectomy, many women have been left wondering if the actress's path is right for them, too. In fact, Angelina's decisiveness actually left a lot of questions hanging out there. The good news is that it's opened up a whole new conversation between doctors and patients, experts and the general public, about what we should -- and should not -- be doing as individuals to keep the disease at bay.
The fact is, not every woman should be tested for the BRCA gene mutations. Or, more to the point, genetic counselors believe that only women with certain risk factors should be getting. Here, four reasons the breast cancer gene test isn't for every woman ...
1. The mutations are actually quite rare. Although it's one of the most discussed ways you can develop the disease, inherited gene mutations that result in a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer only occur in 1 in 400 people and account for just 5 percent of breast cancers, according to Beth Crawford, a genetic counselor and director of clinical services for the Cancer Risk Program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. It also bears noting that in families with histories of breast and ovarian cancer, about half do not have BRCA mutations at all.
2. If you don't have a particular family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you may not need the test. "The reassuring news is that genetic testing isn't warranted for most women, even those who have one relative who has had cancer," Crawford writes on CNN.com. However, having two first-degree relatives (mom, sister or daughter) or three second-degree relatives (grandmother or aunt) is a clue that your family might be at risk, especially if at least one person was diagnosed before age 50. (That's because hereditary cancer is often diagnosed at a young age.)
More from The Stir: Angelina Jolie Inspired Me to Get Tested for the Breast Cancer Gene
3. Without a family history, you may end up paying big bucks out of pocket. However, if you're in the high-risk group, the test is usually covered. If you need help trying to decide if you should attempt to get the test covered, you can work with a genetic counselor to determine if it's right for you.
4. Having the test when you don't really need to can cause undue anxiety. The test could come back showing "a genetic variant of unknown significance," which Crawford says "probably means nothing, but since we don't know for sure, can produce unnecessary anxiety." Granted, we shouldn't feel like women can't be getting tested, because they won't be able to handle a little anxiety! That's nuts! But because anxiety and stress can actually promote disease, why put yourself through it if there's really no need?
What factors have influenced your own personal decision to get tested or not?
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