Genetic Counselor: Double Mastectomies Not Drastic

By Rachel Martin

May 14, 2013 Updated May 15, 2013 at 9:15 AM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (www.incnow.tv) – A local genetic counselor weighs-in on the cancer-causing gene and if getting a double mastectomy is a drastic measure.

By now you've probably heard about actress Angelina Jolie getting a double mastectomy to prevent developing breast cancer after a genetic test showed an 87 percent chance it would happen.

Some are probably thinking her action is drastic, especially since she was not diagnosed with breast cancer. However, published reports say out of the estimated 200,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, 30,000 will opt for the double mastectomy.

Melissa Dempsey, a Genetic Counselor with the Parkview Comprehensive Cancer Center in Fort Wayne says approximately one in 500 women carry the genetic mutation. She says BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most common causes of hereditary cancer, and makes up about 10 percent of all breast cancer cases.

“Anyone who has a mutation, one of these genes, has a 60 to 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. For the average woman it's only about a 12 percent chance. So you're talking five to eight times the average risk,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey adds that when women discover they have the gene, there are really only two options: to get an MRI or mammogram every six months for the rest of their life, or get their breast and/or ovaries removed. She says by getting a double mastectomy, Angelina Jolie eliminated her chance of developing cancer at all.

“For some women, if they decide to do an MRI every six months for the rest of their life, it’s a very nerve racking way to live. You’re living and waiting to develop cancer,” she said. "Some women just feel much more comfortable knowing they've taken care of it and they've done the best that they can."

To figure out if you carry the gene, Dempsey says women need to look at their family history and consider these things:

• Were you or a family member diagnosed with cancer at a young age (before 50)?
• Have you or a family member had multiple primary tumors or bilateral cancer?
• Do you have two or more family members with cancer, particularly the same type of cancer?

Dempsey says those factors are indicators you might need to see a genetic counselor and take a test, which consist of taking a spit sample.

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