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February 21, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Breast Cancer, Genetically Speaking

By Jeany Miller More Blogs by This Author

A Secondary Tumor

My grandmother died of a brain tumor when she was just 56 years old. I was nine, and I remember the feeling of complete bewilderment as I watched her fall more and more ill. She was diagnosed in April or May after losing the use of her right leg, and she passed away three or four months later in August. By that time, her body was riddled with cancer.

Gamy’s brain tumor was not primary (it didn't originates in the brain). Hers was instead secondary, in which the cancer starts elsewhere and spreads to the brain. At the time doctors discovered her brain tumor, she was in remission for breast cancer. Her battle with that disease had started in her early 30s and continued for roughly 15 years. From a very young age, I remember her wearing a padded bra that made her appear to have the silhouette of an ordinary woman. She had, however, undergone a double mastectomy before I was even born.


For some time after her death, I remember my family speaking in hushed tones about the way breast cancer skips generations. During these conversations, they often eyed my sister and me. Together with one cousin, we are Gamy’s only female grandchildren. I’m quite certain my aunts and uncles were trying to determine which of the three of us would suffer a fate similar to my grandmother’s.

She passed away in 1988 - when cancer treatments were a mere fraction of what they are today. I have to believe knowledge of the disease was nearly as minimal. Researchers believe that roughly 5 to 10% of breast cancers are the result of abnormal genes inherited genetically.

The two genes associated with breast cancer are BRCA1 (breast cancer gene one) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene two). These repair damage to cells, and they help breast cells to grow normally. However, when these genes contain mutations, they're unable to work correctly, which can increase the chances for breast cancer. It's thought that these abnormal genes could account for as many as 10% of breast cancer diagnoses. Having said this, it's important to note that breast cancer is rarely caused by an inherited gene.

Risk Factors

The following scenarios put men and women at significantly greater risk of having an abnormal breast cancer gene:

  • A male relative has had the disease.
  • Blood relatives on either side of the family who received a breast cancer diagnosis before 50.
  • Family members suffer from other gland-related cancers.
  • A female family member has had cancer in both breasts.
  • A relative has both breast and ovarian cancer.
  • You come from an Ashkenazi Jewish background.

The average American female has about a 10-15% chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her life. If a woman has the aforementioned gene abnormalities, that number sky rockets to 80%. Unfortunately, we have many more statistics than answers. There's no good way of predicting if an individual will get breast cancer. Certainly my grandmother didn’t know, and that much has not changed in the 25 years she’s been gone.

The most effective way to fight the disease is to establish a quality EDP (early detection plan) with your physician. This includes reminders to schedule mammograms and perform self-examinations from the comfort of your own home, on your own time.


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