“I’ll be honest with you. This family history is very ugly.”
It was something of a wake-up call when the doctor said that to me. I knew there was a lot of cancer on both sides of my family. Some of them were diagnosed as young as in their 30s. But until that day, it had never hit me how unusual that was. In the back of my mind I knew that I was probably at a little higher risk for certain cancers, but it had not occurred to me how serious that risk potentially was.
The doctor strongly recommended genetic screening for gene mutations related to hereditary cancers, including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that have been recently receiving media attention due to their link to breast and ovarian cancer. I knew that a couple of my relatives had tested positive for some of these mutations. My husband and I agreed that the test was a prudent thing to have done, despite the cost.
Less than a week later, I met with the genetic counselor to go over my family history of cancer. She too expressed surprise by just how prevalent cancer was in my family tree and remarked that she’d never seen a list quite that long before. I was sent downstairs to the lab to have my blood drawn and then returned the sample to the doctor’s office to be sent off to Myriad labs in Utah for testing.
And then I waited. I can’t tell you how nerve-wracking the wait was! We were most concerned about the BRCA mutations since there is so much breast and ovarian cancer in my family history. I’ve seen people I love struggle through surgery and treatments for both of those cancers. It scared me just how dramatically those tiny gene mutations could increase my own risk of facing those diseases. Admittedly, a positive result does not guarantee that you’ll end up with cancer, just as a negative result doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never be diagnosed with cancer. It does tip the statistics quite a bit though.
When my results finally came in, I was surprised and relieved that I tested negative for all of the gene mutations that they checked for. The genetic counselor was just as surprised! I still have a slightly increased risk based on my family medical history, but it’s much lower than it could have been.
Do I regret having the testing done now that it came back negative? Not at all! The genetic screening for cancer-related gene mutations is not a test that everyone needs by any means, but I more than fit the screening guidelines for someone at risk of these mutations. I have information now that I didn’t have before. That will help me and my doctor decide what screenings I should have and when I should have them.
If you’re wondering whether you should consider the genetic screening for the mutations linked to hereditary cancer, please talk to your doctor. It’s like the line from those old G.I. Joe PSAs from the Saturday morning cartoons, “Knowing is half the battle.”