Put to the Test: The Breast Cancer Gene

A woman with breast cancer undergoes genetic testing to find out whether she carries a breast cancer gene

By Peggy Orenstein

Was My Breast Cancer Just a Fluke?

The thing I remember most about being told I had breast cancer was how the colors in my home office — where I’d been tidying up for the day, preparing to go to a movie with my husband — went flat. Isn’t that odd, I thought, looking down at my newly alien torso. My red shirt has turned gray. My red shirt has turned gray, and I might die.

That spectrum shift was the first sign that I’d passed through an invisible membrane into the parallel universe of the ill. I turned to my husband, Steven, who was standing in the doorway, listening in disbelief on the extension as the surgeon told us that I was a lucky woman, that the cancer was low-grade and slow growing, eminently treatable with a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation. We stared at each other for a beat, as close and as distant as we had ever been. He reached his hand out, as if to keep me with him. "But I eat organic broccoli!" I wailed, and then began to cry.

That was January 1997, only six weeks past my thirty-fifth birthday. The odds of being diagnosed at that age were one in 233. A fluke. "Do you have a family history?" an acquaintance asked when I told her the news. I suppose it was a natural question, although fewer than a quarter of breast cancers are familial. But it struck me — along with the inevitable queries I’d field about whether I held in anger, had endured a trauma, or had been depressed — as a way for other women, under the guise of caring, to reassure themselves that they were safe. "No, I don’t," I snapped. "No one in my family has had breast cancer. I’m just like you."

As far as I knew, that was true.

A week later, I read an article in the paper about a blood test that could detect inherited mutations in the BRCA genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. In most women the BRCA genes suppress tumor growth. In some families, however, the gene contains a flaw, passed along by either the mother or the father, that makes it do the opposite, predisposing its carriers to breast and ovarian cancer. About one in 800 people carry the BRCA1 mutation in the general public, but among Ashkenazi Jews — those whose ancestors emigrated from middle or Eastern Europe — the rate of mutations in either gene is closer to one in 40. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew. My aunt had died of ovarian cancer at 54. At the time, we thought that was a fluke too. Yet even as the thought, this could be me, entered my head, I rejected the idea. No one else in my extended family had been sick. Besides, I already knew my lifetime breast cancer risk: It was 100 percent.

There is a little bit of Vegas in predictive genetic testing, a roll of the statistical dice. Even if you found, let’s say, that you had an 80 percent risk for some disease, who’s to say you wouldn’t be in the other 20 percent? What if the known risk-reducing treatments come with risks of their own, the way tamoxifen, the widely used breast cancer drug, increases the risk of uterine cancer? Increasingly, all of us will be running the numbers and weighing the trade-offs on one scary condition or another — we all have skeletons lurking in our skeletons. In its zeal to find them, science has outpaced the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of its discoveries.

Cardiovascular disease. Diabetes. There will be gene tests for all of them and more, and each will bring with it the same questions: Who should be tested? What is the benefit of knowing you’re at risk, especially if, as with the degenerative and ultimately fatal Huntington’s disease, there is no cure available? What responsibility does a person who tests have to family members, including those who might not want to know the status? Should genetic testing be a factor in choosing whom you marry? Would some couples want to abort if their fetuses were found to have a tendency toward cancer? Mutations are not a guarantee of cancer, remember, and cancer is by no means a death sentence. Maybe there are some things we can’t, or shouldn’t, control.

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