One in eight women born in the U.S. today will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. While that may sound like a scary number, most women survive breast cancer, especially when detected early. Women who know their lifetime risk for developing the cancer have an even better chance of survival. Knowing this can be the first step in preventing breast cancer, which is the long-term hope for those working on the front lines of this effort.

Getting an annual mammogram is a good start, but taking advantage of genetic screening can also be an important step to empowering yourself in the future. According to the American Cancer Society and most other authorities in this field, more than 252 thousand new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in U.S. women this year; more than 2,400 in men.

That's why, when women choose to have their mammograms at St. Mary's Breast Center, they also receive a genetic risk assessment – and at no cost. This assessment can help verify if further genetic testing is necessary to determine that person's risk for the disease. All you need to do is provide some information about any personal or family history of cancer.

If that family history contains a certain risk level, you may decide to have genetic testing done to determine if you have any of the abnormal genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Two of the most well-known abnormal genes connected with breast cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who inherit these mutations, (abnormal changes) from their mothers or their fathers have a much higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Men with these mutations have an increased risk of breast cancer, (higher if the BRCA2 gene is affected) and prostate cancer.

A study by the University of Cambridge showed mutations in the PALB2 gene, which, like BRCA1 and BRCA2 predispose women to breast cancer, although the effect of the mutation on the prognosis of cancer is still being studied. Currently there are no widely accepted guidelines for the medical management of men and women with PALB2 mutation as there are with BRCA1 and 2.

PALB2 was first linked to breast cancer in 2007. University of Cambridge researchers found that the PALB2 gene increases the risk of breast cancer to 1 in 3 by age 70. That means, a woman by age 70, with an abnormal PALB2 gene who had no family history of breast cancer, had a 33 percent risk of developing breast cancer. And, if two or more first-degree relatives had breast cancer, the risk increased to 58 percent. PALB2 has also been linked to pancreatic cancer.

If you are interested in genetic testing, the St. Mary's Breast Center will set you up with a genetic counselor, who will discuss all the risks and benefits. Qualifications are based on personal and family cancer history. Genetic testing is done in one of two ways, a BUCCAL/Saliva test or a blood test. It is a test panel for 25 genes, 13 of which are associated with breast cancer. The 25 genes tested for are all connected to hereditary cancers such as

• breast

• ovarian

• colorectal

• endometrial

• melanoma

• pancreatic

• gastric

• prostate

If you, or someone you know has a family history of hereditary cancer, I urge you to take some steps that might have life-saving implications. If you're not sure, check out the online risk assessment available through our website at and certainly call the Breast Center with any questions.


-- Christy Myers is the Breast Center’s patient navigator and can be reached at 816-655-5767.