Sunday, April 21, 2013

Misconceptions about breast cancer risk

Last night we had dinner with a friend who's mother had breast cancer more than 15 years ago. She was talking about her concern about getting breast cancer. I think both her grandmothers and a couple aunts had breast cancer. Several of them had bilateral mastectomies. This is dating back decades to the 1970s and earlier.

She has not been tested for the BRCA genes because it would require her mother to be tested and she didn't want to put her mother through that. That was probably 15 years ago and she hadn't asked since. She was very concerned and sounded like she was sure she would get breast cancer.

I asked her a couple questions. What stage cancer did all her relatives have? She had no idea. She thought they were relatively advanced because of the bilateral mastectomies. But those were done in the 1970s when more radical surgery prevailed.

I also said that the BRCA genes only account for 5-10% of all breast cancers. But I did suggest that even though she was told years ago that she would have to have her mother get tested for the BRCA gene first, maybe times had changed and she could be tested now. She is going to ask her doctor about that now.

Her other comment was that there is cancer on both sides of her family and both her parents had cancer which further reinforced her thought that she would definitely get cancer. 

I was somewhat surprised at her misconceptions that she was sure she would get cancer because of her family history. Yes she is probably at higher risk than the average population of getting cancer. But there is  no reason to think she definitely will get cancer. And with regular mammograms and annual physicals, anything would probably be caught early.

I think this is a case of her mind getting ahead of reality. You start thinking well everyone else got cancer so I will too and I'll die some kind of horrible death as a result. I hope I was able to reassure her that she is doing the right thing and cancer is not a certainty for her.

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