When Dawn Myers was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, it put her whole family on notice.
After finding out she had a lump, Myers had a mammogram. She later had the cancer removed surgically, then was recommended to come to Methodist Jennie Edmundson Hospital.
“I was referred over here, and got the rest of the blood test going and found out it was genetic; which I had never heard of before in my life,” Myers said in an interview at the hospital.
Myers said her dad’s mom had ovarian cancer, and that grandmother’s sister had breast cancer.
The genetic testing revealed Myers had the BRCA1 gene, a gene that increases the likelihood of breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and hysterectomy done at a later date, and is currently cancer free.
A bilateral prophylactic mastectomy is believed to make it 95% less likely that an individual will have breast cancer with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, according to the National Cancer Institute.
This procedure would lessen the risk by 90% in women with a strong family history of breast cancer. Although, it is still recommended to be vigilant with mammograms and other precautions, said Dr. Michael Zlomke, general surgeon at Methodist Jennie Edmundson Hospital.
While fighting cancer, Myers’ sister Sandy Michalak drove her to appointments and was genetically tested herself.
“I was out at dinner when I got the results back and I cried,” Michalak said. “I talked it over with my husband and he said, ‘Do what you want to do.’”
Michalak also was positive for the BRCA1 gene.
“I didn’t think very long about what to do,” said Michalak. “I had my hysterectomy first, then I went in and had a double mastectomy. I then had the reconstruction.”
After seeing her sister have cancer and go through chemotherapy, Michalak said she didn’t want to go through that.
Inherited genetic mutations play a large role in 5 to 10% of all cancers, and associated mutations in specific genes with more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes (disorders that may predispose individuals to develop certain cancers), according to researchers at the National Cancer Institute.
A set of questions asked before and during a mammogram can answer who should be genetically tested to indicate the likelihood they have of facing breast cancer or other cancers.
“Anybody that comes into our doors at the breast center or mammography area, we put through a high risk assessment screening,” said Tammy Johnson, a nurse navigator with the Jennie Ed Breast Health Center. “If they flag red for needing genetic testing we offer it at that time. We’re finding a lot of gals that carry genetic mutations, we can do things to help.”
A genetic mutation does not mean the individual will have cancer, but it can indicate an increased likelihood. These genetic tests began in the breast center last year.
Myers’ other sister, Kim Kyle, was the last sister to undergo genetic testing for breast cancer.
“I kind of didn’t want to know about it, but then I thought I had kids involved, my own kids were involved, I had to do it,” Kyle said. “My daughter was tested at the same time and she was negative, I was so happy.”
Kyle tested positive for the BRCA1 gene as well and had a hysterectomy. All three of the sisters have children. The children who were tested found they did not have the BRCA1 gene.
Zlomke advised family is a large reason women choose to get tested.
“As you get older it may not affect you as much, because we have ladies in their 70s and 80s we test and they’re like, ‘Well it doesn’t matter for me because I’m closer to the end of my life than the beginning,’” Zlomke said. “But, when they understand it could affect their families they’re like, ‘Heck yes, sign me up.’”
If a person is found to have a gene or other factor that increases the chance of breast cancer Zlomke recommends dietary changes, medications like tamoxifen, evista and aromatase inhibitors.
“Those are drugs we’ve used for years to help treat breast cancer, but we’ve found they’re effective in reducing risk in high-risk women. They reduce the risk about 50 to 60%,” Zlomke said. “Then the ultimate risk reduction strategy is having your breasts removed before you get breast cancer.”
Annual mammograms are recommended as well as another way of detecting breast cancer.
“We are lowering risk of dying from breast cancer even by just getting mammograms every year,” Zlomke said. “If we change someone from not a regular mammogram person to one every year that’s a win as well.”