From Tennova Healthcare

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Tennova Healthcare is using the occasion to call attention to the role of genetic testing in the fight against the disease.

Genetic testing has quickly become a more mainstream practice—both for human interest about one’s ancestry, and for the purpose of understanding how that ancestry might increase your risk for certain diseases, such as breast cancer.

Dr. Jessica Vinsant

“Genetic testing may be recommended for a person already diagnosed with cancer, especially if there are other factors to suggest the cancer might have been caused by an inherited mutation,” says Jessica Vinsant, M.D., a general surgeon and medical director of the Tennova Breast Center at North Knoxville Medical Center and Physician’s Regional Medical Center. “Genetic testing might also be advised for people with a family history of certain types of cancer, to see if they carry a gene mutation that increases their risk.”

An example is testing for changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (which are known to increase the risk of breast cancer and some other cancers) in a woman whose mother and sister had breast cancer, especially if it was diagnosed before age 50. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women with a BRCA gene mutation are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 30 times more likely to get ovarian cancer, when compared with women without the gene mutations.

Should all women be tested for the BRCA gene mutation? The experts say, absolutely not.

“It’s important to keep in mind that gene mutations are only a small part of the breast cancer story,” Dr. Vinsant says. “While it is true that having an immediate family member with breast cancer can increase your risk of being diagnosed, it is also true that about 80 percent of women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease. There are many other factors—some inside and some outside of your control.”

Because BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are relatively rare in the general population, most experts agree that genetic testing of individuals should be performed only when the person’s individual or family history suggests the possible presence of a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women with the following risk factors should seek genetic counseling to determine if genetic testing is indicated:

  • A family history of someone having a positive BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation
  • Breast cancer diagnosed before age 50 years
  • Cancer in both breasts in the same woman
  • Ovarian, tubal or peritoneal cancer at any age in a family member
  • Two or more family members with breast cancer
  • Both breast and ovarian cancers in a single family member
  • Cases of male breast cancer in a family member
  • People of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry

“Beyond BRCA genes, there are more than 30 gene mutations associated with various types of hereditary cancer,” Dr. Vinsant explains. “Tremendous information can be gained through genetic testing, but it is important to work with your physician to ensure you pursue the right options for you.

“Genetic testing has a role in breast cancer prevention, but in no way does it reduce the need for vigilance,” she adds. “Recommended screenings like mammograms, a healthy diet, regular exercise and a no-smoking policy are still the most critical tools for cancer prevention. Genetic testing is another tool for early intervention and managing increased risk, and should be used judiciously.”

If you meet the criteria set by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, talk with your doctor about the best prevention and testing for you. For more information call 1-855-TENNOVA (836-6682) or visit