The Importance of Knowing Your Family's Health History
- Identical twins Vatrecia and Vamekia Gayfield were diagnosed with breast cancer just months apart. Now, the sisters are urging others to get routine mammography screenings, conduct breast self-exams, and test to see if cancer runs in your family.
- Breast self-exams led to Vatrecia and Vamekia cancer diagnoses, and the sisters ultimately learned they carry an inherited BRCA gene mutation.
- There are thousands of genes that can cause cancer risk. Some woman have a higher risk of developing breast cancer because of an inherited BRCA gene mutation.
- BRCA is comprised of two genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which work as tumor suppressors. When either of these genes is altered, damaged DNA cannot be repaired properly, leading to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. There are several different genetic tests available to find out if you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.
- If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past, or have a family history of this cancer, you should discuss the genetic aspects of the disease with your physician.
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Four months later, Vamekia also felt something in her breast and was eventually diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer following a biopsy, and two months after that she learned she was pregnant.
Vamekia told Harris Health, “After my sister was diagnosed I was more aware and constantly examined myself. Once I found a lump, I had a mammogram, then a biopsy, and on top of all that, I found out I had a baby on the way.
“My support system immediately gathered around me just as we did with my sister.”
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Commenting on her sisters pregnancy, Vatrecia told Harris Health, “That was a blessing for the both of us. Her daughter is like my daughter. I love her so much. It was hard, but we got through it together along with God, our mother and other sisters.”
Noting how the hospital staff was also incredibly helpful throughout her cancer battle, Vatrecia, who is now “cancer free” and taking prevention treatment medication, said, “They were so amazing. They constantly encouraged me and were my family in the hospital.”
She now encourages others to “push through,” insisting, “the treatment saved my life.”
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Following Vamekia cancer treatment, both she and her twin sister underwent testing to see if they had a breast cancer gene.
“I definitely think everyone should take the test to see if cancer runs in your family,” Vamekia explained. “We didn’t know at first because my dad is adopted, but that forced us to look into our family history.” It was the twins’ dad who carried the gene over to them.
The twins, who admitted to being “close” before cancer, recounted being “determined to fight this together like we have with everything else in life.”
As for Vamekia, her baby was her “ultimate motivation” in battling breast cancer. She finished her cancer treatment in November and gave birth to her healthy daughter just one month later.
Gene Mutations and Cancer
In understanding how women’s risk of breast cancer is heightened if the disease is hereditary, and there are many genes associated with breast cancer.
Our body is composed of microscopic building blocks called cells. Every cell in your body carries genetic codes that instruct your body to run properly. If there is any change or error that occurs at your gene level, your healthy cells stop working properly. These errors can lead to gene mutations, which can fuel the development of cancer.
“One of these healthy cells is sitting put, it’s doing its job and it makes mistakes in its instructions. These instructions are called ‘DNA’, and mistakes are called ‘mutations,’” says Dr. Jared Weiss, section Chief of Thoracic and Head/Neck Oncology at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
According to Weiss, “These mistakes make the cell forget how to do its job; instead it learns how to make copies of itself spread and grow, which is what cancer is.”
Researchers have found a way to examine the genetic material of a patient’s tumors. In the last few decades, they have learned a great deal about how changes in our genes can affect our health and increase the risk of cancer.
SurvivorNet experts tell us that next-generation sequencing (NGS), a type of molecular testing, can help you and your doctor decide on the best course of breast cancer treatment — but this type of comprehensive testing is not used in call cases.
Understanding BRCA Gene Mutations
It’s also important to understand the role BRCA gene mutations, which the Gayfield twins have, play in breast cancer risk, and what these gene mutations actually are.
For starters, BRCA is two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2). According to the National Cancer Institute, BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene 1) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene 2) are genes that produce proteins that work to repair damaged DNA.
The BRCA genes are sometimes referred to as tumor suppressor genes since changes, or mutations, in these genes can lead to cancer.
Everyone is born with two copies of each of the BRCA genes, one inherited from each parent. If either parent carries a BRCA gene mutation, there’s a 50-50 chance the child will carry it as well.
When BRCA1 or BRCA2 have certain mutations, or changes, men and women are at a higher risk level for several cancers, most notably breast and ovarian cancer in women.
Breast Cancer: Molecular Testing Terms To Know
According to the National Cancer Institute, 55 to 72 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 variant will get breast cancer by the time they reach 70 to 80 years old. Similarly, 45 to 69 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 variant will get breast cancer by that same age.
The percentage of women in the general population who will get breast cancer in their lifetime? About 13 percent.
“If a woman has one of these mutations the genetic BRCA1 and (BRCA)2 mutations, it puts her at basically the highest quantifiable risk for getting breast cancer,” Dr. Elisa Port, a surgical oncologist at Mount Sinai, told SurvivorNet. “We typically say between the 60 (percent) and 80 percent range.”
If you have a family history of cancer, like the Gayfield twins, genetic testing could be one way for you to find out if you have harmful genetic mutations that increase your risk of developing certain cancers. Ask your doctor if genetic testing is right for you.
Dr. Port explained, “We now feel that casting a wider net with genetic testing is probably very prudent because finding out that one has a cancer predisposition gene can definitely change their course, their risk for cancer and what they might want to do about it.”
“Specific mutations in BRCA genes lead to an increased risk of developing breast cancer,” Dr. Freya Schnabel from the NYU Langone Medical Center told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview.
“People who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer may want to consider being tested for mutations, particularly if the relative was diagnosed with cancer before age 50.”
Questions To Ask Your Doctor:
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past or have a family history of this cancer, you should discuss the genetic aspects of the disease with your physician:
- Do I have genetic mutations that increase my risk of developing breast cancer? Knowing your mutational status can help you manage this risk through diligent cancer screenings or regular physician visits.
- If I do have a genetic mutation, should my children be tested as well? Genetic mutations may make it more likely for your children to develop breast cancer.
- I was tested in the past for genetic mutations, but should I be tested again? New genes that contributed to an increased risk of breast cancer are being discovered day in, day out. Even if you have tested negative for mutations in the past, it may be worth it to get retested for some of the new genetic mutations.
How Faith Can Help Your Cancer Journey
Having faith, like the Gayfield sisters, can help keep your spirits high even during times of struggle. It’s something SurvivorNet experts also say helps cancer patients during their cancer journeys.
New York City Presbyterian Pastor Tom Evans previously spoke with SurvivorNet about the importance of finding ways to cope with the complex web of feelings you may be experiencing after a challenging health diagnosis, such as cancer or a threatening tumor.
“It’s important to reach out in a simple prayer to God, even if you’ve never prayed before, you don’t know what to say, a heartfelt plea, ‘God, help me, be with me,'” Pastor Evans told SurvivorNet.
“You can reach out to God, and you can reach out to people, your friends and, family, and say, ‘I can’t do this on my own. I need you.’ It’s in that willingness to be open and to receive that we can find something deeper that we never would’ve encountered without this hardship,” Evans continued.
WATCH: Turning to Faith During a Cancer Journey.
Meanwhile, a strong support system is also important and it’s something that can be made up of loved ones like family and friends. It can also be comprised of strangers who have come together because of a shared cancer experience. Mental health professionals can also be critical parts of a support system.
WATCH: Sharing Details About Your Cancer Diagnosis
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff