With Angelina Jolie’s big announcement and all the media attention surrounding BRCA and preventative mastectomy, maybe you’re wondering if you or someone you love is a previvor (a person who hasn’t had cancer but has a high risk for developing it.) The truth is, most people don’t know that they are. For instance, though about 1/500 men and women have a BRCA mutation, less than 10% of people know that they do. (Note: The rate among certain populations is much higher—for instance, 1/40 Ashkenazi Jews have a BRCA mutation.)
Here’s how you can determine if you’re a previvor:
1. Know your family history. In most cases, a previvor’s risk starts with family history. So it’s crucial that you learn your family history on both sides of your family. Your father’s side of the family counts as much as your mother’s side. Going back as far as you can, find out about any family members who battled cancer and the ages they were diagnosed.
2. Watch for red flags. Are there more than two cases of cancer on the same side of the family? Is there any ovarian cancer or male breast cancer in your family? Have any relatives been diagnosed in their 40s or younger? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might have a hereditary risk for breast cancer.
3. Learn your other risk factors. For instance, have you had any abnormal breast biopsy results? Do you have dense breasts, which is something your doctor can help you determine? Or have you taken hormone replacement therapy? These factors can all increase your risk for breast cancer.
4. Keep an open dialogue with your doctor. If you think you might be at risk, tell your doctor about your family history and other risk factors, and discuss what steps you should take. You should also consider seeing a genetics counselor, who can really help you understand your risk, discuss whether or not you should undergo genetic testing, and highlight the pros and cons of all of your options based on your results. The National Society of Genetic Counselors can help you find an expert in your area.
5. Remember, you’re not alone. Check out organizations such as FORCE and Bright Pink. They’ll both provide you with the latest research on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. And they have message boards and other networking opportunities where you can speak with women who completely understand what you’re going through.