The BRCA Gene: What You Should Know About Breast Cancer Risk And Genetic Testing
Women's Health

The BRCA Gene: What You Should Know About Breast Cancer Risk And Genetic Testing

I am not thrilled.

That was the first thought that came to mind during my recent appointment for a mammogram, especially after the ultrasound technician insisted on smashing my boobs between the machine's two plates like my breast was a Panini.

“Ma'am, they don't flatten," I finally managed to utter as I held my breath.

That remark must've earned me a referral because there I was in another doctor's office. I swear the technician had adjusted the knobs on the mammography machine until a speck appeared on the image. It was no secret I was already prone to cysts, usually harmless fluid-filled masses that randomly develop on either side. Doctors say they could come from one too many caffeine beverages, like my daily venti caramel frappuccinos, but they are unsure of the actual cause. I've had several cysts aspirated and analyzed throughout the years, and the results have always come back benign, or non-cancerous.

Still, my doctors were concerned because I'd lost my mother to breast cancer when she was only 46. She had received her second diagnosis earlier that same year.

Because of my family history and my issues, the breast specialist asked me if I would be interested in taking the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic test.

I had never heard of it but she explained that it was used to see if I possibly “inherited" breast cancer from my mother. BRCA1 and BRCA2 refer to breast cancer susceptibility genes, which repair cell damage and help our breast cells grow normally. Any variation in these genes can increase the likelihood of developing both breast and ovarian cancers. The genetic test screens for the mutations, which can be passed from one generation to the next.

The breast specialist also warned me that the test was costly and that most times insurance companies refuse to cover it. But since I fell within the high-risk parameters, I didn't have to pay anything out-of-pocket. There are also a few at-home testing options, ranging from $99 to $249.

The in-office genetic screen is administered as either a blood test or the “swish" test. I opted for the latter, which required me to rinse my mouth and spit the Scope-like solution back into a cup. My doctor would then send it off for an analysis. But I had to wait an hour because I was chewing gum and remnants of anything in the saliva could skew the results.

I called a friend to pass time. “Are you f--king crazy?" she asked. “Why'd you wanna do that? I'd just wait and take my chances."

I was initially taken aback and wanted to ask her how it was crazier than opting to play roulette with my life if I didn't have to.

But I kind of understood her reaction. I knew another young lady only a few years older than me who was in my predicament – a family history and abnormal breast imaging – but she outright refused the test. She wasn't prepared for bad news and everything that could come with it, like treatment and mortality.

However, I was already being pricked every few years or so and I played the five-day wait game to hear my results. I can't say I was used to it but it sort of became routine for me, although an uncomfortable one.

I had done my research. I knew the statistics.

1 in 8 women would receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime.

Breast cancer is more likely to affect white women but if black women are diagnosed with it, we're more likely to succumb to it sooner rather than later, especially if it's the more aggressive triple negative breast cancer that tends to strike us. I committed it all to memory.

Yet, I decided to be proactive and figure out how to prevent the disease if necessary, than be diagnosed with it later on and worried sick about my survival.

I was going to take the test and my results like a G.

I waited about a week for a callback. My test results detected “no known mutation." However, it didn't mean that I never have to worry about breast cancer; it only meant that I didn't inherit “bad genes" and my chance of developing the disease isn't any more than the average woman.

Still, I was subjected to a technician twisting my boobs into obscene angles because of the pesky cyst that was too deep within dense tissue to aspirate. But just not as frequently as I would had my test results been unfavorable.

Granted, it may seem like the BRCA genetic test was a waste of time and money because, ultimately, I still have to undergo the usual screenings regardless of the outcome. But there have been amazing strides in research and technological advancements. For example, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 test was once only useful for women of Jewish descent. But in 2015, the American Cancer Society published a study that found that 12.4% of the young black women (meaning under 50) who had the aggressive triple negative breast cancer, also had the mutation. It's the type of information that could help save their daughters' lives.

But while the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic test results aren't always definitive for all forms of breast cancer, it still proves to be an invaluable tool for black women and it does offer some insight into the future state of our breast health.

For more information on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic screen, or to determine whether the test is right for you, consult with your physician first.

Featured image by Shutterstock

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