Myth Busting: BRCA Genes and Breast Cancer

Do BRCA gene mutations cause breast cancer?

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Last week, we explored the myth that that you can’t improve your health because your genetics are predetermined. This week: A few myths about BRCA gene mutations and breast cancer.

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Let’s see how much you know about hereditary breast cancer and the BRCA gene mutation. Are these statements true or false?

Myth 1: Most breast cancer is caused by BRCA gene mutations.

Fact: Most breast cancer is actually considered sporadic (occurring by chance). BRCA gene mutations are actually responsible for an extremely small number of breast cancer cases. So the chance to have a BRCA mutation is low, but when there is a mutation, the chance to develop certain cancers is high. Other causes of breast cancer include lifestyle and environment. Most breast cancer patients will never know the true cause of their disease.

Myth 2: We don’t have the BRCA gene in our family.

Fact: Actually, everyone — women and men — has the two BRCA genes. Let me take a step back and describe what BRCA genes are and how they relate to breast cancer. The BRCA genes are named for breast cancer. These genes are called tumor suppressors, which means their job is to help prevent cancer from developing. You get one copy of the BRCA genes from your mom and one copy from your dad. When one of these copies has a mutation, you have less protection and an increased risk for developing cancer. Inherited BRCA gene mutations cause a condition called HBOC (hereditary breast and ovarian cancer) syndrome. Many people believe that only women can pass down BRCA gene mutations to their children, but this is not true. It is important to remember that you can inherit these mutations from either your mom or your dad.

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Myth 3: If I order a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test (like 23andMe) on the Internet, I will have all of the answers I need regarding BRCA gene mutations and breast cancer risk.

Fact: While a DTC genetic test may give you some answers, it might not be complete. With so many tests available on the Internet today, they can be very confusing! Since hereditary breast cancer is rare, genetic testing is most useful for women with a certain personal or family history.

It is important to discuss your family history with your doctor so that any hereditary disease patterns may be identified early. If a hereditary cancer syndrome is suspected, you and your doctor can determine if you should be referred to a genetic counselor for consultation and testing.

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Kathryn Teng, MD

Kathryn Teng, MD, is Director of the Center for Personalized Healthcare and leads Cleveland Clinic’s efforts to integrate personalized healthcare into standard practice.
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