During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we will examine the answer to a common question among women: “What is the breast cancer gene?” To understand what it is, it helps to have some background information about what DNA is, and how genes pass along hereditary information from one generation to the next.
What Are Genes?
Genes are small sections of the DNA that are the “code” for individual traits, such as being right-handed or left-handed, or having blue eyes or brown eyes, and so on. These inherited traits are passed on through the genetic code, and each person has two copies for every gene, because they inherit one gene from each parent. Every person inherits hereditary information that is passed along from one generation to the next that makes up their DNA. Genetic mutations can be inherited from either or both parents.
How Genetic Mutations Can Cause Breast Cancer
Every human being has the breast cancer gene, commonly abbreviated as “BRCA,” as it stands for “BReast CAncer gene.” The role of the BRCA gene is to suppress tumor proteins found in breast cancer. Despite what the name suggests, the BRCA gene does not cause breast cancer, but a mutation of the BRCA gene makes your risk of developing breast cancer before menopause about 80% higher than those who do not have this mutation.
The reason BRCA mutations can cause cancer is because the DNA making up the gene is damaged, or mutated. When the BRCA gene does not work properly, its function to suppress tumor growth is compromised. The mutation of the BRCA gene means it is no longer able to effectively repair broken DNA and help prevent breast cancer. Because genes are inherited, the carrier of the breast cancer gene can pass BRCA down to their own offspring. This is true whether the carrier is the biological father or mother.
Do I Need to Be Tested for the Breast Cancer Gene?
If your biological mother, sister, or aunt has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may be interested in genetic testing. By learning more about your genetic family history on both sides of your family, you can determine whether you should be tested.
Signs you should be tested for BRCA include:
- Strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer: You have had 3 or more women in your family (specifically, your biological mother or sister, or a grandmother or aunt on either side of your family) have had breast and/or ovarian cancer, particularly if they were diagnosed pre-menopause.
- Or, you have 1 or more close relative who has had breast cancer in both breasts.
- Male relatives with breast cancer: If a man in your family has had breast cancer at any age, you have a higher risk of having a BRCA gene mutation.
- Ashkenazi Jewish descent: People of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent have a 2.5% chance of inheriting a BRCA mutation, which is about 10 times the rate of the general population.
Interested in meeting with a physician to discuss breast cancer? Contact us at Primary Care Associates of Texas to book an appointment by calling (817) 725-7880.
Next week, in part 2 of our Breast Cancer Awareness Month blog series, we will explore what to do if you have tested positive for the BRCA mutation.