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Genetics and Family Risk Assessment FAQs

Updated June 3, 2010

Q: As a woman affected by breast cancer, how do I know if I should have genetic testing?

A: Genetic testing for inherited breast cancer risk typically involves a blood test to look for "misspellings" in the genetic code called gene mutations. If you have an inherited gene mutation in certain genes like BRCA1 (Breast Cancer-1) and BRCA2 (Breast Cancer-2), you have a higher risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

If you have had cancer in the past, you also have a higher chance of developing another cancer (a new and different one, not a recurrence) if you have a BRCA mutation.

If you have questions about genetic testing, you should talk with your oncologist about your concerns. Your doctor can help you understand when to consider genetic counseling and testing. You should also meet with a genetic counselor before deciding whether or not to have genetic testing. This trained health professional can review your family’s medical history and explain what your chance is of carrying a gene mutation. You can learn how genetic risk might influence your healthcare decisions, as well as those of your family members. They can also help you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of genetic testing, arrange insurance coverage and explain how the test is done before you move ahead. Women have different reasons for getting tested, and counseling is key to helping you make decisions that are right for you.

No matter what your race or ethnic background, if you have breast cancer yourself or have a family history of breast cancer, and you are concerned about your risk or the risk to your family members, you can ask for a referral to a cancer genetic counselor.

Reviewed by Jill Stopfer, MS