7 Things To Know About Genetic Testing For Cancer

by Gina M. Florio

A staggering 22 percent of American women die every year from some form of cancer, and it's the second biggest health risk for women everywhere. Breast cancer poses the biggest threat by far. One in every eight women will develop it, and this year it's expected that more than 307,000 cases will be diagnosed. It's not the only form of cancer that affect women in particular, though. More than 250,000 women suffer from ovarian cancer every year, and a staggering 260,000 women die from cervical cancer in the same amount of time.

While we do need to continue to gather funding to find a cure, and be diligent about making treatments available and accessible to women of all demographics, there is one piece of the cancer-fighting pie that often gets overlooked: the genetic testing to determine whether women have certain genes that put them at a higher risk for developing cancer. This preventative measure could stop thousands of women from ever meeting a cancer diagnosis.

Kaylene Ready, a genetic specialist and the director of Inherited Cancer at the DNA testing and services company Counsyl, spoke with Bustle about the specifics of genetic screenings, and just how useful they can be. Because so many young women are being diagnosed with cancers today, it's important to understand how these tests are conducted, so you can decide whether you need to take one yourself.

Here are seven things you should know about getting tested for a gene mutation.

1. If You Have Certain Gene Mutations, You're Much More Likely To Be Diagnosed With Cancer

Cancer hits when a gene mutates in your body, causing cancer cells to reproduce at a rapid rate. In fact, 10 percent of all cancer cases arise from gene mutations that have been passed down along family lines. While possessing this hereditary mutation isn't a cancer diagnosis in and of itself, it significantly elevates your risk for contracting cancer at some point in your life.

Take the well-known BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation. A woman who is a carrier of this has a 50 to 85 percent chance of facing breast cancer in their lifetime. Ready tells Bustle that Lynch syndrome, an inherited condition, is just as dangerous.

"It doesn't get as much press as the BRCA gene," Ready says, yet a woman who has Lynch syndrome has a 40 percent increased risk for developing endometrial cancer, and almost 12 percent increase for ovarian cancer.

2. You Don't Have To Have A History Of Cancer In Your Family To Carry A Mutation

One of the first indicators that you may have a cancer-related gene mutation is if you have a history of cancer in your family. However, a woman who's never had relatives with breast cancer could still possess the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene without knowing it, still making her more than 50 percent likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

The same goes for Lynch syndrome. Although many doctors encourage women to get tested who know they have a family history of Lynch, don't automatically assume you're not vulnerable just because nobody in your family has Lynch.

3. Genetic Testing Is (Relatively) Easily Available

Knowing your family history is just as crucial as knowing what genes you've got. "It's important to consider both," Ready says, that way you don't have to sit around during your younger adult years and merely wonder whether you carry a mutation.

Genetic screenings are available through companies like Counsyl, where the patient can speak directly with the genetic tester — no middle man here — and ask all the relevant questions about what kind of tests you're getting, how it relates to your family history, and how to discuss the results with your doctor.

Keep in mind that when you opt in for a test, you choose to get screened for specific mutations, rather than just getting tested for them all. So you pick which test you take according to what cancer(s) you're looking to prevent. Also, there is no health risk in getting tested.

4. Young Women Are Being Encouraged To Get These Tests Done

Ready said this piece of advice is being handed out now more than ever: "Start screenings at 25 instead of waiting until 40." One third of women diagnosed with breast cancer today are under the age of 50, which is a bigger number than most of us would expect. Plus, did you know that mammograms fail to catch up to 15 percent of breast cancer cases?

Ovarian cancer prevention benefits from early testing, too. A staggering 51 percent of the cases are diagnosed at Stage III or later, and the survival rate is only 34 percent. Also, there are hardly any noticeable symptoms of ovarian cancer, making it very hard to catch early on. As for endometrial cancer, if it's addressed in the early stages, the survival rate is over 90 percent. In short, it's better to be proactive.

5. Your Insurance Might Cover It

Due to incredible advances in medical technology, the cost for genetic screenings has dropped significantly. Ready says cancer-related genetic testing used to "be out of the realm of possibility" for the everyday person because of the high price tag. Today, however, many insurance companies cover it, especially if you have a history of cancer in your family, and Ready expects more will climb on board as awareness around preventative measures grows.

Furthermore, completing the test is easy, at least when done with a company like Counsyl. You can either go in for a quick doctor's appointment or — get a load of this — you can have the kit mailed to your front door. Because it's a genetic test, the results won't change over time, so all it takes is mailing in a little saliva.

6. ... But These Tests Cannot Determine If Or When You Will Contract Cancer

This is an important distinction: Genetic screenings only test you for whether you possess a certain genetic mutation, not whether you will contract a certain type of cancer at any point in your life. That means that getting back a test that says you are positive with Lynch syndrome or the BRACA gene mutation is not a cancer diagnosis.

Once you receive your test results, you can discuss them with the genetic specialist who conducted the screenings. After that conversation, Ready recommends you take the results to your doctor. With them you can come up with a game plan.

7. How You Deal With The Results Is Entirely Up To You

Actress and activist Angelina Jolie garnered a lot of attention last year when she published an op-ed in the New York Times about her choice to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed before she developed cancer. After learning that she possessed the BRCA1 gene mutation, she decided to take another preventative measure (the first being her double mastectomy in 2013) in order ward off cancer in her and her family's future.

"Jolie's impact was positive overall," Ready says. However, while her announcement raised awareness about cancer in women in general, there were a lot of questions about whether surgery was necessary for women who test positive for gene mutations like BRCA. The bottom line is, it's not. There are many other ways to prevent a cancer diagnosis that you and your doctor can figure out together. Surgery isn't the only answer — though it is an option, even for young women.

Whether or not you decide to get a screening done, just knowing that it's an option and spreading this knowledge is part of the women's health education we all need. At the end of the day, these dangerous cancers — breast, ovarian, and endometrial — are preventable, and the more we raise awareness about them among young women, the more cancer-related deaths we can prevent in the future.

Want more women's health coverage? Check out Bustle's new podcast, Honestly Though, which tackles all the questions you're afraid to ask.

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