Angelina Jolie sparked a lot of buzz last week when she announced that she had undergone a double-mastectomy—at age 37—as a preemptive measure against breast cancer. Many have hailed the actress’s frankness as courageous and enlightening.
First, let’s note that Jolie’s circumstances are rare. The catalyst for Jolie’s decision was a genetic mutation that meant an 87 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, along with a 50 percent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer (the disease that claimed her mother’s life at a young age). Without a doubt, these are astounding and frightening odds.
The vast majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer, however, don’t have a mutation of the BRCA1 (Jolie’s) or BRCA2 gene. Even women with a prominent family history of the disease—such as Jolie—might not carry the mutation, but fall into another category of hereditary cancer. What’s more, non-genetic factors can influence a breast cancer diagnosis—these include early menstruation or late menopause, lifestyle (smoking, overeating, excessive alcohol intake and lack of exercise), and exposure to environmental toxins.
Ten years ago, breast cancer was treated as a single disease, but today we are mining information from genes within tumors to guide treatment decisions. This strategy minimizes side effects and improves quality of life for patients.
In the video below, Sohnee Ahmed, a certified genetic counselor at URMC, discusses why it’s important to understand your family’s history of cancer, considerations for genetic testing if a pattern is present, and what options are available should a BRCA1 or BRCA 2 gene mutation be identified.
Interested in genetic counseling? To reach a certified genetic counselor at URMC, call (585) 275-3461.
Sohnee Ahmed is a certified genetic counselor in the departments of Medicine and Child Neurology. She provides counseling for families at the URMC’s Neurogenetics Consultation Service, Huntington Disease Center of Excellence, and Cancer Genetics Service. Ahmed is involved in research endeavors including the implementation of universal Lynch Syndrome screening among colorectal cancer patients. A frequent speaker on the importance of genetic counseling, she’s also a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors.