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What are the BRCA genes?

Karen Hawthorne is a health and lifestyle writer and producer in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications including Glow, Homemakers, BestHealthMag.ca and the National Post.

Know your genetics

The best defense against cancer is healthy lifestyle habits and being informed. When it comes to breast cancer, understanding BRCA genes—breast cancer genes—and how they may affect your risk of disease, is important.

BRCA-gene-research

Everyone has BRCA genes

BRCA genes have been making headlines because tests for BRCA gene mutations, or abnormalities, can determine the risk factor for certain cancers. Early detection for cancer risk is key to prevention or treatment.

But what are BRCA genes and what do they do? First of all, everyone has BRCA genes. They are part of our natural DNA or genetic coding. They perform an important bodily function: they control cell growth. When they're working properly, they help stop the growth of abnormal cells that could lead to tumors.

Tumors can be benign, not cancerous or malignant, meaning cancer is present. Tumors are an abnormal mass of tissue that happens when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Another familiar word for this abnormal tissue mass is "neoplasm."

Gene mutations may indicate cancer risk

BRCA genes may have mutations or problems in their genetic makeup or material. If so, they may not function properly in regulating cell growth. The result may be abnormal cell growth or tumors. Important to note, though, is that having faulty BRCA genes is not a diagnosis for illness. Many women who have mutations in the BRCA genes are healthy and lead normal lives.

People with a mutation, regardless of whether or not they develop cancer, however, have a 50/50 chance to pass the mutation on to the next generation.

Two different types of BRCA mutations: BRCA1, BRCA2

Delving into the topic further, there are two different types of BRCA mutations that concern the medical community: BRCA1 and BRCA2. The names stand for breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and breast cancer susceptibility gene 2. BRCA1 is found on chromosome 17 and BRCA2 is found on chromosome 13. Mutations in either gene increase a person's risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers.

Family history of breast cancer: genetic testing

If there is a history of breast cancer or other cancer in your family, many doctors may recommend what's called genetic testing to see if you have any BRCA gene mutations. You may have inherited faulty genetic material, putting you at greater risk for cancer. If you do have gene mutations, this early finding will help doctors monitor your health closely and suggest lifestyle changes for prevention.

Women are often tested when they develop breast or ovarian cancer because the presence of mutations may influence the choice of treatment. The genetic testing only requires blood drawn at a doctor's office or medical clinic, although results may take several weeks. A counselling session usually is held to discuss the results and address any concerns.

Statistics on breast cancer and harmful mutations

The National Cancer Institute says 12 percent of women (120 out of 1,000) in the general population will develop breast cancer sometime during their lives, compared with about 60 percent of women (600 out of 1,000) who have inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2—she is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer.

More on cancer awareness

Breast cancer research
Breast cancer tips every woman should know
Breast cancer: Measuring your risk

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