An estimated three-quarters of a million Americans live with greatly increased risk of cancer due to an inherited BRCA gene mutation, but most of these individuals are unaware of their risk. So in 2010, Congress designated the last week in September as National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Week to raise awareness of hereditary cancer, including genetic counseling and testing. Midpoint during the week is also designated as National Previvor Day.
HBOC week marks the transition between Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (September) and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), symbolizing the genetic link between the two cancers. This year, National HBOC week occurs September 28 to October 4, with October 1 designated as National Previvor Day.
Having a BRCA gene mutation doesn’t guarantee a cancer diagnosis, but it does significantly raise the risk: women with a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 have up to 85% risk for breast cancer and up to 50% risk for ovarian cancer. Men with BRCA mutations face greater risk for male breast cancer and prostate cancer. Having a mutation also slightly increases the risk for other cancers as well, including melanoma and pancreatic cancer. (And individual’s risk may be different depending on whether a mutation is in the BRCA1 gene or the BRCA2 gene.)
Although requests for genetic testing have risen dramatically since Angelina Jolie publicized her genetic status and subsequent preventive double mastectomy, about 90% of cancers are not hereditary, so for most people, genetic testing to determine whether an individual or family carries a BRCA mutation doesn’t make sense. Families who have any of the following red flags, however, should consider talking with a genetic counselor, who can determine whether genetic testing is warranted:
One or more relatives with:
- ovarian or fallopian tube cancer at any age
- breast cancer at age 50 or younger
- breast cancer in both breasts at any age
- triple-negative breast cancer
- male breast cancer
- Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and breast cancer before age 60
- both breast and ovarian cancer
- breast cancer
- ovarian or fallopian tube cancer
- prostate cancer
- pancreatic cancer