BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that help control normal cell growth. Sometimes, people inherit changes in one of these genes. These changes are called mutations. If you inherit a mutation in a BRCA (say "BRAH-kuh") gene, you have a greater risk of breast and ovarian cancers as well as some other cancers, such as prostate and pancreatic cancers.
BRCA gene changes aren't common. If you are concerned that you may have a BRCA gene change, talk with your doctor. You can have genetic testing to find out if you have the BRCA mutation. A test may look just for BRCA gene changes. Or you may have a multi-gene panel test that also looks for other genes that can raise your cancer risk.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
Why is the test done?
A BRCA blood test is done to learn if you have a BRCA gene change. In Alberta, you may be able to have a gene test to look for a BRCA gene change if:
- You have a specific type of cancer (such as breast, prostate, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer) and there are other signs that you have may have a BRCA mutation, like a young age at diagnosis or have other family members with the same type of cancer.
- You have a family history of a BRCA mutation.
If the test shows that you do have a BRCA mutation, you may be able to make some decisions that could reduce your cancer risk.
What happens after a breast cancer gene (BRCA) test?
The results of a BRCA gene test can help you find out how high your cancer risk is. If it is high, you might decide to take steps to lower your risk. There are several things you might do, such as:
- Have checkups and tests more often.
- Have surgery to remove your breasts.
- Have surgery to remove your ovaries.
- Take medicines that may help prevent breast cancer.
What are the risks of the test?
A negative test may give you a false sense of security. So you may not have the regular tests that help find cancer at an early stage. But a negative BRCA test does not mean that you will never have breast or ovarian cancer.
A positive test result may cause anxiety or depression. A positive BRCA test does not mean that you will definitely get breast or ovarian cancer.
What can you do to reduce the risk of breast cancer?
Your risk for breast cancer increases as you get older. There is no known way to prevent breast cancer. But with some cancers, finding them early can increase your chances of successful treatment.
Here are some steps you can take to help reduce your risk:
- Get familiar with the look and feel of your breasts. This will help you notice any changes. Call your doctor or nurse advice line if you notice a change.
- Have regular breast examinations by your doctor or nurse. Ask your doctor how often you should get them.
- Have regular mammograms. A mammogram is a picture of your breast tissue. It can find changes in your breast before you can feel them. Talk to your doctor about when to get this test.
You can also help take care of yourself and reduce your risk of cancer if you:
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Eat a healthy, low-fat diet.
- Get some exercise every day. If you don't usually exercise, walking is a good way to start.
- Don't smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
- If you drink alcohol, limit it to less than 1 drink a day if you are a woman and less than 2 drinks a day if you are a man. Any amount of alcohol may increase your risk for some types of cancer.
- Breastfeed. There is some evidence that breastfeeding may lower the risk of breast cancer. The benefit seems to be greatest in those who have breastfed for longer than 12 months or who breastfed several children.
BRCA gene changes
People who do a gene test and find out that they have a BRCA gene change have some options to manage their cancer risk.
- For female breast cancer: If you haven't yet had cancer, you may want to think about starting breast cancer screening at a younger age, taking medicine, and having preventive surgery.
- For male breast cancer: You may want to think about doing breast self-examinations and having clinical breast examinations. (And it's a good idea to have prostate cancer screenings too.)
If you have a BRCA gene change, talk with your doctor about how you can manage your cancer risk.
Where can you learn more?
Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd
Enter U252 in the search box to learn more about "Breast Cancer (BRCA) Gene Testing: Care Instructions".
Adaptation Date: 2/25/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services