Yesterday I made the whole team cry. Thankfully it wasn’t because I was making unreasonable requests related to productivity or deadlines. Instead, I had slotted off the morning so that we could all watch a movie together—Decoding Annie Parker (2013; we borrowed it from a local library). Without spoiling the entire plot for our readers, suffice it to say that the movie, based on actual events, follows a woman (Annie Parker) who has a strong family and then personal history of cancer. In parallel, the movie follows the decades of research by Dr. Mary-Claire King and her team on their road to discovering the BRCA1 gene.
We blog about the BRCA1 and the related BRCA2 genes regularly, but as a refresher—certain mutations in these genes lead to an increased risk to develop breast and ovarian cancer, among other cancer types. Additionally, BRCA1/2 mutations can be passed down from parents to offspring, and the chance of having a BRCA1/2 mutation is ten-fold greater in individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than it is in the general population. BRCA “status” can be revealed by genetic testing, and BRCA mutation “carriers” have medical management options available to them for reducing the risk of developing cancers or for detecting cancers at a very early (and perhaps treatable) stage if they do develop.
It was my second time seeing the movie, and also my second time crying through it. But this time I also watched it with different eyes, since our Program has gotten more and more involved in the BRCA education and testing realms over the past two years. We talk and talk about the importance of knowing and discussing one’s family medical history. Even in the 1970s, before the concept of hereditary cancer predisposition syndromes existed, Annie Parker (and undoubtedly others like her) had the gut feeling that cancer was running in her family and that it was always lurking in the shadows, waiting to get her. And this caused Annie to live in constant fear and to obsess over things like breast self-exams, library searches, and diets.
In our times, we are fortunate to have the genetic knowledge about the implications of familial BRCA1/2 mutations and the ability to test for carrier status and to guide those who are identified as carriers. While being Ashkenazi Jewish is in and of itself a risk factor for carrying a BRCA mutation, this risk factor is exacerbated by having a family history of BRCA-related cancers. Under current guidelines from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, being Ashkenazi Jewish and having a first or second degree blood relative (meaning a parent, child, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt/uncle or niece/nephew) who has had breast, ovarian or pancreatic cancer at any age would warrant pursuing BRCA testing (along with genetic counseling). Many of us probably fall into that category but don’t realize what this may connote.
Getting back to the movie and all those tears—it’s been a really busy summer at the PJGH so far, and it was definitely a welcome change of pace to have “PJGH movie in the morning.” It was also really powerful and authentic have a good “group cry.” I think the whole experience reinforced our joint commitment to protecting the genetic health of the Jewish community and its future generations. But I still need to think about why the team is rallying for seeing Pitch Perfect together next.
PS The movie we saw (at work) was pretty graphic on multiple levels–consider yourselves warned…
I recently came across a blog post by a friend of a friend. She was opening up about her recent diagnosis of cancer. The beginning of her blog was something along the lines of “I’ve been running from my family history of cancer for as long as I can remember. Knowing that all of these people in my family had been diagnosed, I just kept on waiting for the grim reaper to come and get me too. Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I guess I’m not running anymore…”
I’ve heard this sentiment time and time again, both from patients and from friends. People recognize that their family history of cancer plays a role in their own risk for cancer, and many people live with this shadow hanging over their heads. The waiting and the worrying, the fatalism of it all; the sentiment of ‘these people in my family died cancer, and I know I’m going to develop cancer too, and there’s nothing I’m going to do but sit, wait for it to happen, and try to put it out of my mind.’
I recognize that different people approach fears and anxieties in different ways, but this “wait and do nothing” approach drives me NUTS. If you are aware that you have a strong family history of cancer, there are many practical things that you can and should do, other than sticking your head in the sand. Some of these things might save your life.
- Have regular annual visits with your primary doctor. This might be your primary care doctor (PCP) or family medicine doctor, or even gynecologist. Do not go to a doctor only once every 5 years when there is a problem. Tell your doctor if you have a family history of any medical issues. Routine preventive care can help you catch health problems before they become serious.
- Engage in screening for the cancers that run in your family. Unfortunately, effective screening tests do not exist for certain cancers. However effective screening tests do exist for many other cancers, for example, breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer, to name a few. Speak to your doctor (see #1) to find out if effective screening exists for the cancers in your family. The rule of thumb is that your cancer screening should begin 10 years earlier than the youngest case in your immediate family.
- Stay away from tobacco. Stop smoking, and avoid second hand smoke. Smoking causes cancer. And for those who already may have a hereditary risk for cancer, smoking does not help you, my friend.
- Consider meeting with a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor will review your family history and give you a sense if he or she thinks there may be a hereditary component to the cancer in your family. The genetic counselor will also discuss with you your genetic testing options. Finding out that you have a hereditary predisposition to cancer may provide you with a better plan for cancer screening, or risk reducing options, and will help identify other family members at risk of having the same issue. By engaging in genetic counseling, you are helping yourself and your relatives!
An example: If your mother, aunt, and brother all have been diagnosed with gastric cancer, you should be getting upper endoscopies annually, starting 10 years before the earliest cancer diagnosis. So you take my advice and you meet with a genetic counselor. The genetic counselor says that she thinks the cancer in your family may be caused by a rare hereditary cancer syndrome called Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer. She recommends genetic testing for the CDH1 gene, and explains that if you in fact had a mutation in that gene, she would recommend that you speak with a GI specialist about having a prophylactic gastrectomy (removal of the stomach) since screening for gastric cancer has not been proven effective at identifying cancer at an early and treatable stage. ‘What???’ you say. ‘Remove my stomach? That sounds crazy! And so extreme!’
Perhaps, but this is how you continue to live a healthy life without the burden of stomach cancer looming.
Because in the end, you have two choices:
- Run away from your family history and stick your head in the sand (not my favorite).
- Turn around, face your fears, and address your cancer risk. To risk being redundant, that may be in the form of (1) finding a primary doctor and telling him or her about your family history, (2) asking your doctor to manage your screening regimen, (3) stepping up your screening regimen to be more frequent so that if you do develop cancer, you can catch it at an early and treatable stage, or (4) discussing other risk reducing strategies with your doctor to determine what makes most sense for you in light of your family history.
You do not need to die from cancer just because you have a family history of cancer. Your cancer risk exists, whether you chose to acknowledge it or not. Ignoring it does not actually make it disappear. It just takes away your ability to take any proactive steps to maximize your health and the health of your family.
A few weeks ago, I saw a woman for genetic counseling. She was in her early 60s, and had been diagnosed with breast cancer twice in the same breast. The first time was in her 30s, the second time was within the past few months. Before starting to review her family history, I asked her about her prior cancer diagnoses. This recent cancer diagnosis was identified on a routine mammogram, but her first diagnosis would have been before she started routine breast screening via mammography. “How did you find it?” I asked…
She then proceeded to tell me the following story: “Well, you see. I got this pamphlet in the mail with instructions on how to do a breast self exam. I had never done one before. And usually, I would throw these things out, but I figured, sure, why not? And I took the pamphlet with me into my bedroom, followed the instructions, and did a breast self exam. And I felt something. So I went to my doctor and told her that I had felt something in my breast. She said, “don’t tell me where you felt it, let me try to find it myself.” So she did a breast exam and she didn’t feel anything. So she had me show her where I felt it, and sure enough she said, ‘you know, I do feel something there. I’m sending you for a biopsy.’ And that’s how they found my first breast cancer. That pamphlet saved my life. I wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for that..”
In the last few years, there have been a number of controversies over the best route for breast screening. Should routine mammograms begin at age 40 or at age 50? Should women have clinical breast exams performed by their physician, and if so, how often? Should women perform self breast exams at all? As more research is being done in the realm of breast screening, different opinions have been emerging as to the efficacy of these different screening methods.
One of the interesting shifts has been away from the breast self exam in favor of breast self awareness. The idea behind breast self awareness is that a woman should be aware of how her breasts normally look and feel, so that she can report any changes to her doctor. This differs from the breast self exam, which is a structured procedure of how women should be evaluating their breasts on a regular basis. Many women feel uncomfortable doing a breast self exam, unsure of what they should be looking for. Research found that not only did breast self exams not reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer, but it actually increased the detection of non-cancerous lesions, which required further evaluation, such as a breast biopsy. This research has contributed to the change in recommendations away from self breast exams and toward self breast awareness.
But then I think about the countless stories that I have heard of women, including my patient, who found their own breast cancer by doing a breast self exam. I hear her words echoing back, “That pamphlet saved my life. I wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for that…” and I wonder how she would feel about the change in recommendations.
For those of us with friends or family members who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, or with personal diagnoses of breast cancer ourselves, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month can feel empowering, overwhelming, or even stifling. And with the statistic of 1 in 8 women developing breast cancer in the United States, breast cancer is a disease that should feel relevant, even if one does not have a “personal connection” so to speak. Perhaps for all those who don’t see the relevance, they can think of this October as Breast Awareness Month, and instead of focusing on this disease they can focus on the breast awareness which might someday save their lives.