CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most women who discover they have a gene mutation that dramatically increases their chances of breast cancer choose to have both their breasts removed, a Charleston surgeon said this weekend.
"If you know that you have that high of a chance [of breast cancer] and you have a child and husband and another 70 years to go, you want to be around," said Dr. Roberto Kusminsky, chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Charleston Division of West Virginia University.
However, cases of hereditary cancer, the kind that is passed down from a parent to a child, are rare, Kusminsky said.
Actress Angelina Jolie recently made headlines after undergoing a double mastectomy. She carries a faulty form of the BRCA1 gene, she wrote in a New York Times op-ed. Doctors said her risk of breast cancer was 87 percent and her risk of ovarian cancer was 50 percent, she wrote.
Jolie's mother died of breast cancer.
"When you talk about hereditary breast cancer, the one that you get from your family," Kusminsky said, "you're talking about a very small percent of the cancer."
About 8 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are passed down genetically, he said.
The BRCA1 and the BRCA2 genes are normal ones that everyone has, Kusminsky said. The problem comes about when those normal genes are mutated.
Doctors might recommend that a woman be tested for the gene mutation if other women in her family had breast cancer diagnoses at young ages, he said.
"That's a bell ringing in your brain that says there's a familial hereditary component," Kusminsky said.
The tests for the genetic mutation cost about $4,000 and are performed only by one company, Myriad Genetics. Myriad Genetics has a patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, although a case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if Myriad can legally patent naturally occurring human genes.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One woman in 8 will get breast cancer in her lifetime, but the prevalence of the disease is different at different ages, Kusminsky said. A woman's chances of getting the disease increases with age. The average age of a breast cancer patient in the United States is 61, he said.
Doctors can test for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but there could be cancer-causing genes, as well. Those genes just haven't been discovered yet, Kusminsky said.