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Many breast, ovarian cancer survivors should take this genetic test

For decades, black women faced lower risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer than did white women.
ColorBlind Images/Blend Image
For decades, black women faced lower risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer than did white women.

More than 1 million American women who have had breast or ovarian cancer are not getting a simple genetic test that will determine whether they carry a mutation that puts them at higher risk of a recurrence, according to a UCLA study published Friday.

Up to 10 percent of women who have, or have had, breast cancer, and up to 15 percent of those with a history of ovarian cancer, carry inheritable mutations that put them at higher risk of the cancer returning, says the study, which was published Friday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. 

The test to detect the mutations involves taking blood or saliva, but the study found that 70 percent of eligible breast cancer patients and 80 percent of patients with ovarian cancer have never taken the initial step of discussing testing with their health care provider.

"We want to figure out who are the women in this country that have those genetic changes," says lead author Dr. Christopher Childers, a resident physician at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. That information, he says, can inform decisions about their treatment and surgery. It can also help family members detect cancer early and make lifestyle changes to try to prevent the disease.

National Cancer Center Network guidelines recommend genetic testing for women in these categories:

  • All women who have had ovarian cancer;
  • Women who've had breast cancer if they were diagnosed at age 45 or younger;
  • Women who were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 50 or younger and have a mother, sister or daughter who has had breast cancer;
  • Women who have a mother, sister or daughter who had breast cancer when they were 50 or younger;
  • Women who have a mother, sister or daughter who has had ovarian cancer.

The study, based on surveys of more than 47,000 women nationwide, asked whether women were discussing the test or had taken it. It did not assess why patients aren't discussing or undergoing testing, but Childers says both providers and patients must play a role in closing the gap. He says all providers should ask women about their cancer history, inquire about prior genetic testing and be aware of the latest testing guidelines.
"Genetic testing is not just something that is under the care of an oncologist, it's something that all health care providers, from surgeons to primary care doctors to cardiologists, should be thinking about when we see patients with a history of cancer," he says.

Patients with a history of breast or ovarian cancer should see their doctors and inquire about genetic testing, even if they were diagnosed many years earlier, says Childers. The mutations detected by the test can affect the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Tests for the mutations have been around since the mid-1990s, but science, testing guidelines and test availability have evolved since then.

"It's not something that you can just assume was taken care of when you had the diagnosis five or 10 years ago," he says. "This is something that is as important 10 years, 20 years, 30 years after your cancer, because it can not only affect your own health, but can also affect the health of your family members."

From her experience as a genetic counselor at Providence Health & Services Southern California, study co-author Kimberly Childers says some patients want to know the potential risks for themselves and their family so they can take steps to prevent future cancers, while others say ignorance is bliss.

Those patients typically say, "I'd rather just see what happens and not worry about it, and if something happens, I'll deal with it when it happens," says Childers, who is married to the study's lead author. She notes that testing might not be right for these people.

On the flip side, Kimberly Childers also sees women who have breast cancer in their history, but learn through testing that they didn’t inherit the gene mutation.

"While our focus is on identifying those at risk who can benefit from early prevention and detection, it also can help give people peace of mind who might be living with a cancer cloud," she says.

The genetic test is covered by Medicare, Medi-Cal and most private insurance plans, says Kimberly Childers.