By now, the name Mary-Claire King and her groundbreaking scientific accomplishment with the BRCA1 gene should resonate with many. Although testing began over 20 years ago, it has only been within the last few years that has expanded its impact and become widespread. But what exactly is the BRCA test (Breast Cancer test)?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the BRCA test is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify harmful changes in one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2). Those who have inherited those genes have a higher risk than most at getting breast and ovarian cancer.
Even though the test has two decades worth of information tagged to it, there are still plenty of people who have not heard of it. And, for those that have heard of it, there are many more misinterpretations of what the test does, what it means, and who should get it.
If you’re one of the two people mentioned above, here are a few debunked myths – and a bit of information – about the BRCA test that you’ll want to keep handy.
Myth: The test will tell you if you’ll get cancer.
Although taking the BRCA test may lead you to believe that it will tell you whether or not you’ll get cancer, Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz – social psychologist, co-founder and CEO of Cure My Way and Buddy & Soul – told INSIDER that unfortunately, it won’t.
“One main way in which women got it wrong about BRCA were when they didn’t realise what the presence of the gene means,” she said. “It dramatically raises the chances of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer, but a third of the women we studied told us it’s ‘very important’ for them that the test would tell them with certainty whether or not they would develop the cancer. Obviously, no such certainty exists.”
Myth: The test will tell you what to do if you have the gene.
Though we’d like to think that the BRCA test is similar to a career aptitude test and will tell us what we should do if it is discovered that we have the gene, that’s not really the purpose of the test. And according to Dr. Miron-Shatz, that assumption is more common than you think.
“Likewise, a third of the women said it was very important for them that the test would tell them what to do if they have the gene,” said Miron-Shatz. “Obviously, no test can do that. In fact, no healthcare professional would tell you what to do either – especially in a condition like breast cancer, where the medical outcomes of frequent testing or preventive mastectomy are very similar.”
Myth: There’s no need to worry about breast cancer if you test negative.
Dr. Constance Chen – board-certified plastic surgeon and breast reconstruction specialist – told INSIDER that a misinterpretation that many women have about the BRCA test is that they’re completely safe if they test negative. It’s completely untrue though.
“Over 90% of women who develop breast cancer do not have hereditary breast cancer,” Chen said. “Instead, over 90% of women who develop breast cancer have no family history and are BRCA-negative but they develop breast cancer due to spontaneous mutations and environmental factors. At the end of the day, the biggest risk factor for breast cancer is having breasts.”
Myth: The BRCA Test is only needed for women because men don’t get breast cancer.
Since many of the stories that you hear about breast cancer are ones that come from women, it may be easy to assume that men are safe from getting it. Due to this, men may think that the BRCA test doesn’t apply to them, but that’s absolutely false.
“Men can get breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancer, which they are at higher risk for with the BRCA mutation,” Dr. Chen said. “In addition, men can pass on the BRCA mutation to their children, so it can help inform the rest of the family about their own cancer risk.”
Myth: Things aren’t going to end well if you test positive for the BRCA Test.
Testing positive for the BRCA test can raise concerns for the patient and their family, but Dr. Chen told INSIDER that it doesn’t mean that it’s a guarantee that you’ll get cancer.
“A positive BRCA test significantly increases the risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers, but it does not guarantee the development of cancer,” she said. “About 12% of women in the general population will develop breast cancer sometime in their lifetime, and women with a BRCA mutation may increase their risk up to five times higher than women without the mutation.”
Myth: If you’ve been previously diagnosed with cancer, the BRCA test isn’t necessary.
If you’ve had cancer before or are currently living with it, taking the BRCA test shouldn’t totally be eliminated from your check-list because it may actually help you throughout your journey.
“Knowing your BRCA status may influence your treatment options if you have already been diagnosed with cancer,” Chen told INSIDER. “It can also help you become aware of other cancers to look out for. Finally, it can help your family learn about their risks for developing cancer.”
Myth: You can’t get the test if your insurance does not cover it.
One of the biggest myths that surround the BRCA test – and one of the most common reasons why more people aren’t getting them – is the assumption that insurance companies are not covering it. According to Chen, however, this is not true.
“BRCA testing is covered by most insurance plans,” she said. “But even if your insurance provider does not cover BRCA testing, there are companies that will offer free BRCA testing for patients who qualify.”
Myth: There is no risk of cancer because there is no family history of it.
According to Dr. Robert Segal, co-founder of LabFinder.com, many people have avoided the BRCA tests because they believe they are exempt from being diagnosed with cancer.
“The most common myth is if they don’t have any family history of cancer, then they don’t need to get tested because they are not at risk,” he said. “In reality, 47% of women with BRCA-mutated cancer did not have any family history of cancer.”
Myth: You should only pay attention to the history from your maternal side.
Since many people think that only women are susceptible to cancer that getting it is exclusive to the maternal side of your family. Dr. Segal told INSIDER, however, that this is actually a false way to think.
“Another big misconception about the BRCA test is that one should only look at the maternal side of your family,” Dr. Segal. “The BRCA genes can be passed down from either the mother or the father, which means that both men and women should get tested.”
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