DENVER, CO--(Marketwired - Sep 12, 2016) - For women with families with a history of ovarian or breast cancer, advances in genetic testing are saving lives. Knowing the likelihood of developing cancer can empower a woman to pursue treatment early rather than when it may be too late. Valarie Brehm, who received genetic testing in its early phases, credits it with saving her life and now she wants to educate other women about the importance of this important screening tool.
In 2001, Brehm's younger sister, Audrey Asaro O'Neill, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent BRCA testing. The test, which was a relatively new procedure at that time, came back positive. "I knew when my sister said she was positive for the gene that I would be positive too and that scared me," Brehm admitted. She had good reason for her concern; the CDC reports that having a BRCA mutation raises a woman's lifetime risk of developing breast cancer from 7% (among the general population) to 50% and her risk of developing ovarian cancer from less than 2% to 30%.
Brehm's grandmother and her great aunt, who were twins, both had breast cancer and one had ovarian cancer. Her 77-year-old mother, who has the gene, is one of the fortunate 13 percent who is BRCA-positive, but has not developed cancer. However, she did pass the gene to two of her three daughters. Brehm's older sister is not BRCA-positive.
Following her genetic testing in August 2002, Brehm talked with more than 10 Colorado doctors. The relative newness of testing for the BRCA gene, coupled with what was considered by many to be radical treatment options, was not embraced by all members of the medical profession. Although the doctors wanted her to wait before undergoing any surgeries, Brehm decided to have a prophylactic double mastectomy at age 37. She planned to follow that procedure with a hysterectomy; however, the additional surgery was delayed for a year when she unexpectedly became pregnant with her third child.
"With ovarian cancer, too often by the time you experience the symptoms it's already too late," Brehm explained about her insistence to undergo the surgeries.
Unfortunately, Brehm's sister, the mother of a young daughter, died eight years ago at the age of 39.
"When Angelina Jolie went public about being BRCA-positive and talked about her surgeries, it struck me that people still don't know about genetic testing. It's not like she got special treatment -- these tests are available to everyone," Brehm said. She went on to explain that 20 years ago there was no marker that indicated a woman was likely to get cancer, but improvements in genetic testing and treatments, have made it possible to reduce cancer risk from over 50% percent to less than five percent.
Brehm realizes that not all women will opt for the decisions she, and Jolie, made. She understands that some do not want to alter their bodies physically, to experience premature menopause, or to limit their child-bearing potential. However, she urges women to consult with a genetic counselor who will help them make informed decisions about genetic testing. "Don't look back with regret because you were afraid to know something," Brehm urged. "Knowledge provides the power to make decisions. I have not once regretted my decisions. My sister gave me such a gift. More than a dozen years later, I do not have cancer. I whole heartedly believe that genetic testing saved my life."
Brehm does not know if any of her three daughters -- ages 16, 14 and 12 -- inherited the BRCA gene, but she has educated herself about the age at which family members should undergo genetic testing. She said the current recommendation is 10 years before the youngest relative was diagnosed with cancer.
Brehm's brother, who has not had genetic testing, also could be BRCA-positive and pass it to his children. It's important to understand that the gene can be inherited from either the father or the mother's side of the family and that genes do not skip a generation as some people mistakenly believe. Also, some women with no family history of the disease develop cancer.
September is observed nationally as Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and teal is the color of ovarian cancer, according to Patrice Hauptman, executive director of the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance (COCA). The theme established by COCA this year is "Pass the Teal Torch of Knowledge" with the goal of informing women about the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer and about the importance of genetic testing. Brehm shares that message every chance she gets and will focus on passing her torch of knowledge to every woman she meets this September.
ABOUT OVARIAN CANCER: Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in females in the United States and the deadliest gynecologic cancer. An annual gynecological exam does not check for this cancer and there is no specific screening test for ovarian cancer so recognizing the symptoms, leading to early detection, is critical to saving lives. The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary urgency or frequency. To learn more about COCA and its programs, visit www.colo-ovariancancer.org or call 303-506-7014.