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Genetic Testing Helps Calculate Your Breast Cancer Risk

With a simple blood test, you can learn if you inherited a gene mutation that raises your chances of getting breast cancer.


Woman embracing her grandmother

There’s a lot of information hidden in your genes. You can find out where your ancestors came from or discover how your DNA influences your unique features and character traits.

You can also learn a lot about your health.

Genetic testing is nothing new. It’s been used in healthcare for more than 60 years. You may have had a diagnostic test to find out what’s making you sick or opted for the prenatal screenings to check the health of your unborn child. As more and more is uncovered about chromosomes, you can now also find out which diseases and conditions you’re more likely to develop based on your genetic profile.

Some cancers are caused by genetic mutations.

“Many genes are associated with breast cancer and other types of cancer as well. One mutation can increase your risk of breast, ovarian, colon or other cancers — it just depends on the gene,” says Rachel Preisser, MD, a radiologist at The Iowa Clinic's West Des Moines Campus. “By identifying if you’re at an elevated risk of developing a malignancy, we can offer more aggressive surveillance and, hopefully, pick up any changes when they are small, early and most treatable.”

Unlike the cheek swabs or nose swabs used in popular DNA tests offered by 23andMe or AncestryDNA, genetic testing in the medical field uses a blood test. By testing your blood sample for very specific genetic mutations, you can get more accurate results that outline your risk of developing cancer.

“The test we offer at The Iowa Clinic Women’s Center focuses only on identifying mutations associated with breast cancer. It looks at an expanded panel of 11 different genes, including the BRCA genes that are thought to increase your breast cancer risk,” Dr. Preisser says. “The blood test not only looks at more genes and more types of mutations for each gene, but is also highly accurate when compared to commercially-available products such as 23andMe. Results typically take two to three weeks to come back.”

While only 15 percent of breast cancers are associated with gene mutations, genetic testing can identify whether you have one of the known mutations. From there, you can take a more proactive approach to monitoring your breast health.

Getting genetic testing for breast cancer can help you catch it and cure it.

At your next screening mammogram at The Iowa Clinic, you’ll take a short questionnaire to update your personal information and family history. Knowing more of your family history provides more accurate results.

“It asks about family history but also other risk factors — a recent cancer diagnosis, height, weight, menstrual status and the age of your first child. All that goes into a program that calculates your breast cancer risk score,” Dr. Preisser says. “If you have an elevated lifetime risk of breast cancer, you qualify for genetic testing and our high-risk screening program.”

By entering the program, you get a lot more than that initial risk score. Once your results are in, a genetic counselor will go over them with you to help you understand your genetic testing report, which includes:

  • A breakdown of your specific type of mutation.
  • Your estimated risk of developing different types of cancers associated with your mutation, color-coded by the type of cancer as well as the organ system it affects.
  • Options for improved cancer surveillance.
  • Recommendations for additional measures or specialists to meet with to help manage your risk.
  • Ongoing support with a genetic counselor for any additional questions or concerns.

“Depending on the mutation identified, you may need more frequent screening mammograms, breast MRIs, risk-reducing medications or referral to a gastroenterologist, breast surgeon or gynecologist,” Dr. Preisser says. “One of the really nice things about the program is that scientists are constantly doing research. So if there are any new discoveries in six months or a year down the road, they will update your report.”

That’s an added benefit of going through genetic testing with an expanded panel, Dr. Preisser says. As new research comes in about the gene mutations you have, you get additional information on your cancer risks and recommendations — all based on your initial blood test.

It probably won’t cost you a thing to get all this genetic info.

The three-minute questionnaire you take to learn your breast cancer risk may qualify you for genetic testing. And that’s covered as a preventative service for qualified patients under the Affordable Care Act.

“Most people have coverage for this. If the test is not completely covered by your insurance company, you’ll be informed of the expected cost and asked if you’d like to proceed,” Dr. Preisser says. “But of the over 700 exams performed last year in the state of Iowa, only seven patients incurred an out-of-pocket expense for testing.”

Gene mutations that cause breast cancer are relatively rare. Of the women who qualify for genetic testing, most do not have one of the 11 problem genes. But if you’re one of the rare women with the BRCA gene or another mutation, a quick blood draw not only provides answers but also solutions that can save your life.

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