Ask the Genetic Counselor: Lindsey Byrne

In August’s Survivor Newsletter* we offered survivors the opportunity to ask questions regarding genetic counseling to Lindsey Byrne, a licensed genetic counselor at OhioHealth.

Below are some questions we received and Lindsey’s response.

*Sign up for our survivor-only newsletter here.

DNA structureQ1: What does “family history” really mean?

A1: When we take a family history we ask about cancer history and any other major health issues for first degree relatives which includes (children, siblings and parents), second degree relatives which includes (aunts, uncles and grandparents), and third degree relatives which includes (first cousins and great aunt and great uncles). Having this family history helps us as Genetic Counselors to see if there a pattern of cancer or major health issues expressed in one’s family, and to know how concerned we are to recommend genetic testing to look for a hereditary cause.

Q2: What if members of my family had different types of cancer than breast cancer?

A2: When we take a family history we want to know all types of cancer, since hereditary cancer conditions like Hereditary Breast and Ovarian cancer syndrome which is associated with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have other cancers associated with it besides breast, like ovarian, pancreatic, melanoma, prostate and male breast cancer.

Q3: How do I know I should get tested for the BRCA mutations?

A3: You might be at risk for hereditary cancer (this includes the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes) if you or your family has a history of: cancer diagnosed under the age of 50 years, more than one cancer in the same person, two or more relatives with the same type of cancer in the same side of the family, male breast cancer, rare cancers, Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, and a clustering of cancers in a family (breast and ovarian).

Q4: How does BRCA actually affect breast cancer risk?  What does it do to increase risk?

A4: BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes that produce proteins. These proteins help repair damaged DNA, or genetic material, to protect the body from developing cancer. If there is a mutation, or change, in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, such that the protein is not made or does not function correctly, cells are more likely to develop cancer. Since these mutations are present at birth, individuals with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation have a higher lifetime chance of cancer and younger cancer, 50 and younger, since they are born with a gene not working correctly. Someone who does not have a hereditary mutation and has general population risk for cancer, their cancer tends to appear later in life usually, older than 50, due to aging and other lifestyle factors.