The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently launched a breast and ovarian cancer risk assessment tool called Know:BRCA. It was developed for the public, along with a version for health practitioners, as part of an education initiative to raise awareness and provide important information on BRCA gene mutations, testing and genetic counseling.
Two genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 can influence the risk for breast and ovarian cancer. While all men and women have these genes, which can actually protect against cancer, mutations in the genes can increase the risk of a woman developing breast and ovarian cancer. Women can inherit the mutations from either their father or mother.
BRCA mutations are not common in the general population and not everyone needs BRCA testing. Only about 5-10% of breast cancers and 10-15% of ovarian cancers diagnosed in the United States are associated with BRCA mutations. But BRCA mutations are found more frequently in certain families and ethnic groups. The new online tool helps identify women who might be at risk for a BRCA mutation and invites them to participate in the assessment.
The tool begins with questions such as whether family members have had breast cancer, especially at a young age, or whether a relative has had ovarian cancer. Any "yes" answer moves the user to the assessment part of the site to help ascertain key information on personal genetic risk for developing breast or ovarian cancer. The information returned by the site should be discussed with a genetic counselor or other health practitioner familiar with BRCA to decide on the next steps, including whether BRCA testing is advisable.
To determine if a woman has a BRCA mutation, laboratories evaluate the DNA in a blood or saliva sample. Women who learn through testing that they are at increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer can work with health professionals, including physicians and genetic counselors, to decide if more frequent cancer screenings or preventive treatment to reduce the risk of cancer is appropriate for them. Without preventive treatment, which can include medication and/or preventive surgery (mastectomy), women with a BRCA gene mutation are seven times more likely to get breast cancer and 30 times more likely to get ovarian cancer before age 70 than other women, according to the CDC.
Another government organization has also recognized the importance of access to accurate BRCA information. As of December 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that health practitioners assess women for a family history of breast cancer that may indicate an increased risk of having BRCA mutations. If at risk, a woman should received genetic counseling and then be tested for BRCA mutations if counseling warrants it.
Even if you're unlikely to have risk factors for the mutations, the new CDC resource may be worth visiting so that you can learn more about BRCA and share the links and resource tool with others to help promote awareness and understanding.