BRCA Testing: Am I at Risk?

BRCA Testing: Am I at Risk?
Treating acne. (Source: Raycom)

We all know the devastation that comes with cancer, if not by experiencing it yourself or watching a loved one suffer, you've surely heard of heartbreaking stories. Naturally, it would make most of us ask, "Could I develop cancer?"

A particular genetic screening is helping more people get an answer to that question when it comes to breast and/or ovarian cancer. It's known as BRCA screening.

Actress Angelina Jolie brought it to the forefront recently. After testing positive for the BRCA mutation, she chose to have a double mastectomy and eventually had her ovaries removed. It's all in the name prevention.

Betsy Coy, of Chagrin Falls, knows all about it. She tested positive before Jolie and took the same preventative measures.

"In some ways, I was overwhelmed that I was a ticking time bomb," she says. "In other ways, I was relieved to be able to find out."

She was 34 when she found out. Now at age 39, not only does she say she feels great, she also does all she can to help others going through the same thing via the organization "BRIGHT PINK."

Turns out more women than you would think want the answer that comes from BRCA screening. With that comes quite the controversy, as well as the question: Who really should have it done?

"The more we abuse testing in the wrong situation, the more expensive it will be. So, that's why we have to be good stewards of good genetics testing," says geneticist Dr. Charis Eng of the Cleveland Clinic.

She also believes too much testing of women without the proper family history of cancer can be dangerous. She worries it could yield too many false test results, creating either unnecessary emotional turmoil or unwarranted relief, when really there should be more attention and care.

Her advice is for anyone who is concerned to talk to a geneticist or genetics counselor for expert and safe guidance. Bottom line, she feels our system is not ready for mass testing yet.

But, there are plenty of other experts who strongly disagree, believing BRCA screening should be as common as mammograms and part of routine medical care. Some are even quoted as saying "many women with mutations in these genes are identified as carriers only after their first cancer diagnosis because their family history of cancer was not sufficient to suggest genetic testing."

"To identify a woman as a carrier only after she develops cancer is a failure of cancer prevention," according to researchers expressing their thoughts in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

It's an argument we're going to hear even more about as more learn about BRCA screening.

In the meantime, the fact that it can be and has, in many cases, been life saving is hard for anyone to dispute.

Coy will be quick to tell you how grateful she is for it.

"I wanted to do it on my own time, when I was in control of it, when I could control the timing, when I was healthy," as she refers to her decisions to go ahead with surgeries that would affect her the rest of her life.

To contact Betsy Coy directly, e-mail

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