Breast cancer experts encourage women to investigate genetic history

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The month of October is Breast Cancer awareness month. One out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. (Photo by Ari Davis.)
One out of eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Breast cancer research professionals say young women should know their genetic background. (Ari Davis.)

One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization also predicts “about 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women” in 2016.

The BYU Cougars vs. Cancer group teamed up with Women’s Services and Resources for a Breast Cancer Awareness week at the beginning of the month. To raise awareness, the group will also team up with the women’s volleyball team to hand out T-shirts and fliers at the pink-out volleyball game on Oct. 20, according to project manager Emily Sorenson of the Simmons Center for Cancer Research.

“We hope to raise awareness among members of the BYU community that BYU students and faculty are involved in cutting edge research that is significantly contributing in the fight against cancer,” Sorenson said.

BYU fifth-year graduate student Evita Weagel works in BYU’s cancer research lab and recently participated in the BYU breast cancer awareness panel. She said if people know their families’ genetic histories and are aware of their own bodies, it can be crucial in considering their likelihood of developing cancer.

Weagel said a woman attending the panel might be aware of her family’s history of cancer, but not what genetic mutations her family members carried.

“It’s important to be aware of those things,” Weagel said. “Don’t be afraid to ask your family members about those things.”

A Provo oncologist, Dr. Brandon Barney, said it’s rare for young women to be diagnosed with breast cancer but age and family history are contributing factors.

“It’s actually fairly uncommon for women in their 20s to be diagnosed with breast cancer, it becomes much more prevalent in the 40s and 50s and going into the 30s as well,” Barney said. “It depends on age and if you have a family history of breast cancer.”

Barney said people who are aware of a family history of breast cancer should consider getting screened about 10 years earlier than their nearest first-degree relative. For example, if an individual’s mother was diagnosed at age 40, that individual should consider screenings starting at age 30.

BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology Kim O’Neill has performed breast cancer research for BYU. He said early detection is key. The survival rate is 99 percent if the cancer is confined to the breast, according to statistics issued by the American Cancer Society this year.

The five-year survival rate is 85 percent if cancer spreads to the lymph nodes and the survival rate decreases to 26 percent if it spreads systemically.

“When you consider 1 in 3 people at some stage in their life will develop cancer, it’s better to just get prepared,” O’Neill said. “Prevention is much much better than having to go through massive treatments. The longer you leave, it the more chance it will develop into being a more serious problem.”

Both Barney and O’Neill said young women should see their primary care physician if they are concerned about abnormalities.

Basically it never does any harm to go and get it checked out,” O’Neill said. “It’s better to get it checked out as quickly as possible rather than wait and wait.”