A person checking their phone while also using her laptop to research information about the BRCA gene.

Learn about the BRCA gene and why it’s important

The BRCA gene is an abbreviation for the ‘BReast CAncer’ gene. Both BRCA1 and BRCA2 are different genes that have been shown to relate to an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer.

Helpful information about the BRCA gene

All people carry these genes, and, typically, the genes actually work to help prevent breast cancer. They do this by operating as tumor suppression genes, as they work to help repair breaks in DNA that can cause cause cancer and tumor growth. 

However, a small percent of the population carries a mutated BRCA gene — about 1 in 300 carry a BRCA1 mutation and about 1 in 800 carry a BRCA2 mutation — which means that the gene might not be effective at working as a tumor suppression gene to help prevent breast cancer. This means that people with a mutation of the BRCA gene are more likely to develop breast cancer and other cancers and more likely to do so at a younger age. People with a BRCA mutation can also pass this mutation down to their children. 

The statistics about the BRCA gene

Approximately 1 in 8 American women — or 12% — will get breast cancer in her lifetime, but women with certain genetic mutations have a higher risk. It’s estimated that 55-65% of women with the BRCA1 mutation and 45% of women with the BCRA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70. And women with one of these mutations are more likely to develop more aggressive and difficult to treat breast cancer and, if they’re able to have their cancer successfully treated, to have a higher than average chance of developing a second cancer  called recurrence.

These numbers may sound scary, but the vast majority of breast cancer cases can be treated with early detection. This is even the case with people who have one of the BRCA mutations. And less than 10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have such a mutation. 

Anyone can carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, but people of certain ethic groups are more likely to carry the mutation, including individuals of Eastern or Central European Jewish, French Canadian, and Icelandic descent. 

People who likely have an increased risk of these sort of inherited mutations — based on personal health, family history of cancer, or who have a specific type of breast cancer  may wish to take a BRCA gene test. This blood test analyzes DNA to identify whether or not the individual carries an inherited BRCA mutation. If the test is positive, an individual can then work with a doctor to understand their cancer risk. If the test is negative, this means there is no mutation. However, sometimes the test may reveal gene variants that may or may not be associated with increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. If it seems like a genetic test might be appropriate for you, you could work with a genetic counselor to decide what sort of genetic testing options would be best for you and discuss what the results will mean for your health.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “BRCA gene test for breast and ovarian cancer risk.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, September 1 2016. Retrieved December 18 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/brca-gene-test/about/pac-20384815.
  • “BRCA: The Breast Cancer Gene.” National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. Retrieved December 18 2017. http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/what-is-brca.
  • “BRCA1 and BRCA2: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing.” National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, April 1, 2015. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2. 
  • “PFS007: BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutations.” The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, October 2017. Retrieved December 18 2017. https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/BRCA1-and-BRCA2-Mutations.

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