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Genetic Counseling Can Help Women Detect Breast Cancer Early

Posted May 9, 2001

— October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but the danger is something millions of women and their families live with every day of their lives.

Early detection involves self-exams and mammograms but some women are getting an even earlier start.

There is a lot of confusion these days about breast cancer genes and who is at risk.

Breast cancer can strike anyone, but some women carry a gene that makes them more likely to develop cancer than others. If your mother, her sisters, or anyone in the family has had the disease, your risk may be higher.

But that does not mean the situation is hopeless.

"It's not the scary condition I think women had to go through not so long ago," says patient Judit Katone-Apte.

Because of her family history, she went to Duke University for genetic counseling. "One of my brothers, who's a physician, acutually suggested, because of the family history, I should look into it."

Dr. Kelly Marcom, a Duke Oncologist, studies the link between breast cancer and genetics.

"Basically you can look back through the family, through generations, and see that the mother was affected. The grandmother was affected," she says.

Genetic counseling involves tracking your family history and a physical. From that, counselors determine your risk.

"In the middle of all that, we talk about your thoughts and feelings about cancer, how you perceive your risk and how you feel about all that," says genetic counselor Shelly Clark.

Many women are also concerned about their daughters.

"They're wanting to know 'What can I do to prevent this from happening again? What's my child's risk?'"

Katone-Apte describes her experience. "It was actually quite amazing," she says. "I discovered my risk was slightly higher than the general population, and the next day when I went for my routine mammogram, there were large amounts of calcification in my left breast which had to be biopsied, and it turned out to be malignant."

Her cancer was caught in the earliest stages stages when it is easier to treat. She credits mammograms and early intervention with making breast cancer a beatable disease.

"It's not a deadly disease, so you don't have to worry about being a survivor," she says. "It's like so many other illnesses. You just take care of it and go on with your life."

Marcom emphasizes women do not have to carry the genes to get breast cancer. "It's important to emphasize the vast majority of breast cancer is not related to one of these genes. It happens sporadically, as we say."

There is some controversy over how to treat a woman who has a higher risk of breast cancer.

Some options include drugs like Tamoxifen and even removing the breast to prevent the cancer from developing.


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