Reports are everywhere in the media about which celebrities underwent prophylactic mastectomy, the difficulty of their decision, and why these women made the choice. These media reports can be helpful to our community as they raise awareness of hereditary cancer risk and risk-management and remove the stigma of mastectomy. However, given the media focus on mastectomy, it would be easy to assume that surgery is the only option for high-risk women, when in fact, there are several options available to women who are at increased risk for breast cancer. When the media focuses solely on surgical risk-management, they may inadvertently send a message that this the only way to manage increased risk for breast cancer. Some women may avoid seeking information about their risk for fear that their only recourse will be surgery.
Risk is a spectrum. We know how to identify individuals in the highest risk category for breast cancer—women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation face some of the highest known lifetime risks for cancer, as high as 85% compared to 12.5% for women of average risk. Other gene mutations are also linked with a high risk for breast cancer, including Cowden Syndrome that is associated with a mutation in the PTEN gene, and Li Fraumeni that is associated with a mutation in the P53 gene. Like women with BRCA mutations, women with these other mutations face a high lifetime risk that is usually younger at onset and can be associated with a more aggressive cancer. Continued media attention highlighting genetic counseling and appropriate use of genetic testing can be life-saving. For example, a recent publication estimated that less than 10% of women with a BRCA mutation are aware of their risk.
Current expert guidelines recommend several risk-management strategies for high-risk women with these mutations. National guidelines for breast screening in women with BRCA mutation include annual MRI and mammogram beginning at age 25 or 10 years earlier than the youngest cancer in the family. Surveillance may also be coupled with pharmacoprevention; usually tamoxifen, which has FDA approval for use to lower risk of breast cancer in high-risk women. High-risk surveillance has been shown by research to find cancers earlier when they are more treatable. But surveillance is not infallible, and we know that for some women, the cancer will not be found until it has spread outside the breast and lymph nodes. Therefore, the national guidelines also support the discussion of prophylactic or risk-reducing surgery. Although drastic, it is the most effective means for lowering the risk for breast cancer in high-risk women. Surgery is not for everyone, and surveillance is considered by health care experts to be a viable option for high-risk women to manage their breast cancer risk. Research has shown that risk-reducing mastectomy does not improve overall survival – even in women who are at very high risk – although other outcomes may be more important to women, including avoiding a cancer diagnosis or the consequences of treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and axillary dissection.
Genetics research is improving our ability to pinpoint risk along the risk spectrum. We can now better identify women who are of moderately increased risk. Emerging panels are looking for changes in multiple genes beyond BRCA, PTEN, and P53 that may increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer that confer an "intermediate-risk” of about 20% or higher lifetime risk for breast cancer. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer with no identified cancer mutation also fit this category. Experts have guidelines for women of intermediate breast cancer risk. The American Cancer Society recommends that women with a 20% or higher lifetime risk for breast cancer undergo annual breast MRI in addition to mammograms, starting at a younger age. Other known risk factors may influence women’s risk management decisions, including having very dense breasts that are hard to image or prior abnormal changes on a biopsy, such as atypia or LCIS.
Most women with higher-than-average risk for breast cancer begin with surveillance. Some may ultimately choose to undergo risk-reducing surgery later based on new information, abnormal biopsies, or other factors.
A lot of misinformation and misunderstanding still surrounds breast cancer screening, and women undergoing breast surveillance need credible information and peer support. Some health care providers continue to tell women that they are too young or do not need mammograms or MRI. And research is ongoing with new studies looking at ways to improve breast cancer detection in high-risk women. Medications such as metformin are being investigated for lowering risk of breast cancer. Like all aspects of living with increased cancer risk, some aspects of surveillance differentiate and isolate women from their average-risk peers. By building a strong and unified community, educating women, providing peer support, and advocating for more research and better options, FORCE will continue to provide needed resources for this portion of our community. The stories may not be as exciting or as compelling to the media as those about prophylactic mastectomy, but we must also continue to remind the media that many options are available for women who are at increased risk for breast cancer, and emphasize the importance of consulting with genetics experts to receive credible, personalized information prior to making any risk-management decisions.