Q&A Topic: Genetics and Breast Cancer

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Alice Police, MD, FACS

Q: How do genetics affect a person’s risk of getting breast cancer?
A: Genetics can help diagnose breast cancer. In fact, some mutations elevate the risk of developing breast cancer to almost 100%. The genetic mutations that we know about for breast cancer can elevate a patient at normal risk—which is about 10% to 20% — all the way up to above 90%. Because up to 10 percent of all cancer cases result from hereditary genetic risk factors that are passed from one generation to the next, it’s critically important to recognize families at high risk for an inherited predisposition to cancer.

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Q: What can help determine this risk?
A: At Northern Westchester Hospital, we offer a family-centered Genetic Counseling Program serving those who want to understand their cancer risk. We’re dedicated to helping individuals and families identify their risk, take action, and stay well. Our genetic counselor will assess your cancer risk based upon genetic testing results and your medical and family history. We’ll provide you with a personalized cancer risk reduction and monitoring plan based upon these factors which you will review with your physician(s). Our goal is to help you minimize your risk of cancer—or, should you develop breast cancer, catch it at its earliest and most treatable stage.

Q: Who benefits from this type of program?
A: You may benefit from our Genetic Counseling Program if: • Any first-degree relatives (e.g. mother, sister) have had breast cancer;• Any relatives have had breast cancer at a young age;• Multiple family members have had breast cancer;• You have Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.

Q: Is there a difference in survival rates for people who are genetically prone to breast cancers, compared to those in lower risk categories?
A: Some gene mutations may change the type of chemotherapy the patient is given. However, if you compare two people with cancers in the same stage, grade, and type, genetics will not predict a difference in survival rate. Generally, we start screening at about age 25 for those with a hereditary cancer syndrome. However, we may start screening even younger than that if the nearest relatives had breast cancer at a very young age.

Q: What can people do to decrease the risk of contracting breast cancer, especially if they are at an elevated genetic risk?
A: Maintain an ideal weight; eat a healthy diet; do not smoke; and make sure to exercise. Those recommendations generally reduce the risk of most cancers. Also, do not fear genetic testing. Knowledge is power. You have the power to change the trajectory of your life and your children’s lives, by being aware of your genetic risk for breast cancer and taking action.

Learn More About Dr. Police
Regional Director of Breast Surgery, Northwell Health
Northern Westchester Hospital
Northern Westchester Hospital is a proud member of Northwell Health.

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