Think there is nothing you can do to determine if you will get breast cancer? Guess again.

Given that breast cancer killed an estimated 40,000 U.S. women in 2010 (only lung cancer is a deadlier malignancy) and about 12% of women will develop breast cancer sometime during their lives, it might be wise to learn as much about your risk of developing breast cancer as possible.  That's a no-brainer, right?  But how do you do that?

Genetic testing for breast cancer, and ovarian cancer, can provide incredible information about your risk of developing these kinds of cancer.  BRCA is the breast cancer susceptibility gene. Mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes is strongly associated with the development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. 

When blood tests show that you have a mutation of the BRCA gene, your risk of developing  breast and ovarian cancer is dramatically increased.  About 12% of women in the general population will develop breast cancer sometime during their lives compared with 60% of women who have inherited a harmful mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Women with harmful BRCA mutation often develop breast or ovarian cancer before age 50 and even if they do not develop breast cancer, they are likely to pass the gene mutation to their children.

A blood sample is needed for these tests and the blood is sent to a laboratory that specializes in this test.  The blood tests look for changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 DNA.  A couple weeks after the blood test, a genetic counselor can tell you whether you have a 12% lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, or a 60% risk.

Why would you want to know this possibly dire news?  Good question.  If the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation is found, there are several options to manage your cancer risk.  "Surveillance" means cancer screening, a way of detecting the cancer early, such as mammography and clinical breast exams.  For ovarian cancer, surveillance methods may include transvaginal ultrasound, blood tests for CA-125 antigen, and clinical exams.

What else can you do to stop breast cancer?  The drug, tamoxifen, has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer by about 50% in women who are at increased risk for the disease.

Unlike other medical tests, genetic testing can reveal information not only about the person being tested but also about that person's relatives. Both men and women who inherit the harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, whether they develop cancer or not, may pass the mutations on to their sons and daughters.  Hence, a positive test result can mean that your children will be at increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.  Don't you want them to know that?

Do I have your interest yet?  Okay, good.  Insurance policies vary with regard to whether the cost of testing is covered.  If you are considering BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation testing,  you should find out whether your insurance company's policy covers the cost of genetic testing.  If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, the cost of this testing may be covered by your insurance.  But even if it's not, the cost is a few hundred dollars--isn't that worth it?

If you have a family history of breast cancer, have a conversation with your doctor soon about genetic testing for the BRCA mutation.  It may be the best thing you can do for yourself and your children.