Breast cancer: the Y factor

March 6, 2008 9:11:11 PM PST
Do you think you know your chances of getting breast cancer? Local researchers have found a twist you might not expect when trying to detect the disease.

"I had an inverted nipple, didn't bother me at all."

That was Charles Peterson's first sign of trouble. It didn't bother him, but a year later, a lump appeared, after several mammograms and a biopsy.

"It was found to be cancer."

Charles said he wasn't really surprised, because he remembered an uncle who had breast cancer. What did surprise him were tests results that showed he carried a genetic mutation called BRCA 2, a mutation that raises the breast cancer risk by 80-percent. Charles had a mastectomy last March.

"Then you're sitting there saying, my goodness, what have I unleashed upon my family here."

BRCA 1 & 2 mutations are found more in Ashkenazi Jewish, African-American and Hispanic women, but can show up in any ethnic group.

Dr. Mary Daly of Fox Chase Cancer Center said when sizing-up their family history of breast cancer, most women only look on their mother's side.

"There's a 50-50 chance of which parent can pass this on," said Dr. Daly.

It's a link that is not familiar to even many medical professionals, as Charles' daughter, Terese, found out with her own mammograms.

"My mother had always encouraged me to put down the incidence of my great uncle, and every doctor would tell me that's a completely different type of cancer unrelated!" said Terese Campbell.

Charles, in fact, has a strong line of breast cancer in his family.

"My mother, her mother, my grandmother, as well as my uncle," said Charles.

After a great deal of discussion, Charles' daughters each decided on genetic testing, and with great relief, discovered they didn't inherit the mutation.

"Even my son said 'Wow, so we don't have to worry about this now'," said Christy Fitzpatrick.

Dr. Daly said researchers are just beginning to learn how the BRCA mutation affects men. BRCA 1 can spell prostate cancer at an early age.

And for both men and women, it can raise the risk of pancreatic cancer and melanoma.

She said it's vital for both men and women to know their family trees on both sides an opportunity she admits she missed.

"I don't really remember very much of my grandparents and their families. And now it's too late for me to gather that information," said Dr. Daly.

The Peterson family echoes that, saying you can't know too much about your family's health history:

"The more you know, the smarter your decisions," Charles said.

But it is not too late for you to gather that information, and it is so important you do so.

Once you determine your family history, the next step is to talk to your family physician about it, because what you have learned will go far beyond knowing your cancer risk. It will also allow you to educate yourself and your loved ones about your risk for heart disease, diabetes and more.

One more note: Men who carry the breast cancer gene do not have to develop symptoms themselves to pass the disease on to family members. That's why genetic testing is vital.


Fox Chase Cancer Center (

American Cancer Society (