Keeping Healthy: Genetic Testing for Pre-dispositions to Cancer

She's known as one of the most beautiful celebrities in the world.  And most recently, Angelina Jolie has been in the public eye by her own choice - coming forward with her decision to have a double mastectomy.  She says she underwent the risk reduction surgery to address her chances of getting breast cancer.  She tested positive for a genetic mutation in one of two genes which predisposed her to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.  Genetic counselor Luba Djurdjinovic says Jolie introduced the public to the kinds of dilemma's people face when they test positive for a mutation.  But she says Jolie's decision not just to undergo the genetic testing, but her surgical decision, is not for everyone.

"Because these two genes are only one of a group of genes, there are many other genes that pre-dispose women to an increased lifetime risk of breast cancer," says Djurdjinovic, "so just to be tested for these two genes, without considering other genes may mean that someone has a genetic test, and if their test is negative to these two genes they've had an incomplete test."

Aside from the two genes Jolie had tested, there are 20,000 genes in our body, most that are involved in making our bodies run correctly.  But there's a group linked to controlling cell division, which can result in a genetic mutation in some people.  Djurdjinovic says the first step to determine your health risk is to look at your family history.  Look at parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

"Find out what kinds of illnesses they had in their life, if they have died, what was the cause of their death, and when were the medical conditions diagnosed.  Most medical conditions are diagnosed in individuals after 60 years of age because this is all about aging. But anything that's really occurring under 50 may be of interest to someone's physician,"

From there, she says doctors are good at looking at what types of history may indicate an inherited risk, in which case they may refer patients to a genetic counselor. If a patient gets to the point where a genetic mutation is found for say, breast cancer, removing the breasts is just one option.  Djurdjinovic says many women and men, especially young people, choose to have enhanced breast cancer screenings throughout their life to monitor any illness.  While Jolie's decision is being hailed as brave, everyone must determine what is best for them. It's almost important to understand that what she was tested for - is not necessary for most people, and could differ depending on your personal family history.

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