know your risk

When it comes to family, there are lots of things that get passed down from generation to generation — good looks, a sense of humor, even the lilt and cadence of a voice.

But not everything passed down is good. Hereditary cancers account for between 5 and 10% of breast cancer diagnoses each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Hereditary cancers are generally caused by a mutation present at the earliest stage of fetal development. 

Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer syndrome is often found in women who are younger than the usual age at which these cancers are typically found. According the ACS, most often the cancers are caused by an inherited mutation of the BRCA 1or BRCA 2 gene. Along with breast and ovarian cancers, the hereditary syndrome can lead to fallopian tube cancer, primary peritoneal cancer, male breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer.

Women with a strong history of breast and ovarian cancers should often consider genetic counseling, especially if they are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, which commonly accounts for a greater number of BRCA gene mutations. 

One Seminole woman understands the importance of genetic counseling and how it can play a significant role in cancer diagnoses. 

Jane,* an elementary teacher and mother of three children, underwent in 2016 an elective bilateral mastectomy, as well as the removal of her ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus, after having discovered she carried the BRCA gene. 

“The fear of how prevalent cancer is in our family was enough for me,” said Jane, who had aunts and a grandmother who suffered from breast cancer. “I just didn’t want that risk.”

Jane said she was lucky to find a genetic counselor at Moffitt Cancer Center, who worked with her closely to determine the right course of treatment for her. 

“The first step is to talk to a genetic counselor,” Jane said. “Having information doesn’t mean you have to have surgery.”

And even though she ultimately chose to move forward with the surgeries, Jane said it wasn’t an easy decision for her. 

“I was afraid I’d always wonder if it was 100% the right decision,” she said. 

The decision was cemented when during testing her doctors found pre-cancerous cells in her breast tissue. 

“I was grateful they found it,” Jane said. “It was almost a relief.”

Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) is a national nonprofit devoted to individuals and families affected by breast, ovarian and related cancers, with its headquarters in Tampa. 

Karen Kramer, senior vice president for marketing, said FORCE is a one-stop source of information about the hereditary diseases.

“We offer support, advocacy and access to clinical trials,” Kramer said. 

Through its local support program, FORCE provides a peer-navigation project that matches cancer patients to others with similar life situations.

“If you are a single mother of three and are struggling to make it, we can connect you with other patients who are just like you,” Kramer said. “It helps to know you’re not alone.”

Through its advocacy efforts, FORCE, now in its 20th year, works with patients to help them enroll in clinical trials of new medicines to treat hereditary cancers.

“Through this, clinical trial drugs are brought to the market,” Kramer said.

Kramer said that for many FORCE volunteers, the organization’s mission is near and dear to their hearts. 

“The truth is, most of us are personally affected by this disease,” she said. “When I found out I had the BRCA gene, I came to FORCE to volunteer.

“This is a passion for us,” she said.

For more information about FORCE, visit www.facingourrisk.org, email info@facingourrisk.org or call its toll-free help line at 866-288-RISK (7475).

* Jane is a Seminole resident who asked to remain anonymous.