Breast Cancer and Genetic Testing

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, after non-melanoma skin cancer, and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women, after lung cancer. It is estimated that 230,480 new cases will be diagnosed in women in 2011 and 39,520 deaths in women will occur.

Breast cancer also can occur in men. In 2011 doctors will see around 2140 cases in men, with an estimated 450 deaths.

It is widely understood increased risk for developing breast cancer can be passed down through families. However, there is a mistaken belief that inherited breast cancer is more common than it is. In reality only 5-10% of women with breast and ovarian cancer have inherited their cancer from a parent.

When a permanent change in DNA occurs, this is what is called a mutation or alteration. A woman with a BRCA 1 (BReast CAncer Gene 1) or BRCA 2 (BReast CAncer Gene 2) mutation is at a higher risk for developing breast and/or ovarian cancer than women who do not carry the mutation. Both men and women carry BRCA genes, therefore mutations can be passed from either side. It is important to note not every person who has a BRCA mutation will get cancer.

Women and men who have a significant breast cancer family history may wish to consider genetic testing to see if they carry a mutation in the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes. Only a blood sample is needed. Finding mutated genes can take weeks, so do not expect test results right away. The price of genetic testing varies and, in some cases, may not be covered by health insurance. It is important to talk with a doctor for more information on privacy issues, insurance coverage, and whether genetic testing is a good option.

Receiving a positive test result does not mean a person will get cancer, only that there is an increased risk. If a mutation is not found it is also not a guarantee that cancer will not develop. Before getting tested, each person should decide what the advantages and disadvantages of being tested are for them. What will be right for one person may not be right for the other.

For more information about breast cancer, genetic testing, or any cancer concern, contact the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center/Cancer Information Service:

Phone: 800-237-1225
Walk-in: 200 Hawkins Drive, 4802 JPP
Iowa City, Iowa

Last reviewed: 
September 2015

Interested in using our health content?