Andrea’s story: Cancer prevention can begin with knowing your family history
Shortly after I was born, my father was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he passed away when he was just 29 years old. Losing my dad when I was so young is what ultimately led me to becoming a cancer genetic counselor focusing on cancer prevention…which begins with knowing your family history.
I came to find out there were several additional cancers on my dad’s side of the family: my grandfather had kidney cancer & melanoma, a great aunt died of brain cancer and another of breast cancer, a distant cousin had bladder cancer. It was concerning to me that all of these relatives were only in their 50s.
As a genetic counselor, I know how critical maintaining your family history is. So I asked some tough questions of relatives who I was not very close with, though they are biologically closely related. Through doing this, I learned additional medical information that then qualified me for genetic testing.
At the breast center where I was going for my routine mammograms, I was tested with Myriad’s MyRisk hereditary cancer test, which includes testing for a panel of 28 genes associated with hereditary cancer. The test results showed I was positive for a harmful change (mutation) in the CHEK2 gene. This mutation puts me at increased risk for breast cancer and colon cancer. As a result, I now have a breast MRI every year, in addition to mammogram. I also have colonoscopies every 5 years.
I immediately talked to my mother and sister about my results. Each of them had a 50/50 chance of carrying the same mutation, and, like me, if they were positive they would have an increased chance for breast cancer and colon cancer. I also talked to my two sons (then 17 and 18), explaining that after age 18 they too could choose to be tested–if positive, they would have an increased risk for colon cancer and a small chance for male breast cancer.
Although, the mutation I carry is seen more frequently in individuals of Polish descent (and I’m Polish only on my mom’s side), my mother didn’t want to be tested right away. However, we did inform the breast center where she went for her screening mammograms about my result, and they did a 3-D mammogram for her, finding an early-stage breast cancer. Then, both my mom and my sister were tested. We came to find out my mom carries the same mutation I do, the CHEK2 gene, but my sister was negative. After 2 lumpectomies my mom is now cancer-free. She went earlier than planned for her colonoscopy and they found two very large pre-cancerous colon polyps, which were removed during the colonoscopy. In essence, she prevented colon cancer by having her colonoscopy done earlier!
In the end, having the knowledge that I carried this mutation saved my own mom’s life, not once but twice. Who knows about the positive impact the information will later have on my two sons?
The bottom line is that knowing your own cancer family history is the first step in understanding more about your personal cancer risks. It’s critical that you collect your family history and keep it updated. It’s important to look for multiple cancers in your family, cancers that occur at a younger age (such as breast cancer under 50), and rare cancers such as ovarian and male breast cancer.
If you see these concerning cancers in your family, talk with your health care provider. It’s the first step in determining if you or loved ones might qualify for genetic testing that could very well result in PREVENTING cancer. If you’ve already had a cancer, it could be the key to preventing a second cancer.