Undergoing genetic testing for cancer can be a nerve-wracking experience. But many patients have found that knowing their genetic cancer risk can be empowering. This was true for MJ Alvarado, a patient who underwent genetic testing and found out she carried the BRCA 1 genetic mutation, a mutation that increases your chances of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Not everyone needs genetic testing for the BRCA gene mutation. According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk factors for increased likelihood of having a BRCA mutation include:
- Breast cancer diagnosed before age 50
- Cancer in both breasts in the same woman
- Both breast and ovarian cancers in either the same woman or the same family
- Multiple breast cancers
- Two or more primary types of BRCA1- or BRCA2-related cancers in a single family member
- Cases of male breast cancer
- Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity
We talked with MJ to learn more about her experiences and why she decided to have genetic testing.
Why did you decide to have genetic testing?
When my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008, her doctors suggested she undergo genetic testing. The test showed that she carried the BRCA genetic mutation, a mutation that increases your chances of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
This meant my sisters and I could also have the gene. The next step was for us to undergo genetic testing. I was totally up for testing.
Genetic testing allowed me to feel like I had a choice. I was young, just 30 years old. I had time on my side. I felt like I could beat cancer before it beat me.
The process for genetic testing can be different at each hospital, but in most cases, patients meet with a genetic counselor, then have the test administered through a blood test. The results are usually shared with the patient by the genetic counselor. How did you feel when you received the results?
The test results showed that I, like my mom, carried the gene mutation, and my local doctor suggested that I have a double mastectomy right away to prevent me from developing breast cancer. But I wasn’t ready for that. My son had just been born and I was still breast-feeding, so I decided to seek other options and schedule an appointment at MD Anderson, where my mom was a patient.
My doctor at MD Anderson told me I didn’t need to have surgery right away. Instead, we monitored the situation closely, keeping an eye out for any changes or signs of cancer.
After finding out they carry the BRCA genetic mutation, some women may have a mastectomy or their ovaries removed, but this can be a very difficult and personal decision. What helped you make this decision?
After monitoring my health for a few years, I had my fallopian tubes removed, but my ovaries were left intact. This prevented me from entering early menopause. I’ll have them removed in a few years. I have also scheduled my double mastectomy. I’m nervous, but overall, I have a sense of relief knowing I will have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer.
For me, surgery was the right decision. I was done having children and my family felt complete. But I know that’s a personal decision each patient needs to make for herself. The important thing is to take the first step and receive genetic testing. Your doctors and your loved ones can help you figure out what happens after that.
I’m glad I decided to have genetic testing. I watched my mother go through cancer treatment. I saw how grueling it was. I knew I didn’t want to go through that. Now I can take comfort in knowing I did what I could to lower the odds.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.