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The Medical Minute: Information is power for women at high risk of breast cancer

Now that medical professionals have identified gene mutations that predispose for breast cancer, patients can take proactive steps to reduce their risk.

Many cases of breast cancer seem to have no genetic link, but people with a strong family history of cancer should consider getting tested to see if they carry a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Both men and women can carry and pass on the gene mutations, which increase the likelihood of developing cancers of the breast, ovaries, prostate, pancreas and skin.

This October, as people wear pink and raise awareness and money for breast cancer research and treatment, it's a good time to check your family history to see if you should be tested for the gene mutations.

“If someone is unsure if they have a significant family history, we help them figure that out,” says Annie Arguin, a certified registered nurse practitioner at Penn State Hershey Breast Center. “You don't have to do all the legwork yourself.”

Arguin says there are several options to prevent onset of breast cancer in patients deemed to have a high risk of developing the disease.

First, additional screenings such as an MRI can help doctors determine what exactly is present in the breast.

“Some women have dense breasts, so we are not seeing things clearly with mammography,” Arguin says. She works with patients to demonstrate a need for the additional testing so insurance companies are more likely to cover the screenings.

For her high-risk patients, she recommends clinical breast exams every six months – once with a mammogram and once with an MRI.

Another option is for those at risk to take preventative medications to reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. Although the medications are different for pre- and post-menopausal women, both decrease a woman's risk of cancer by about half.

Then there are lifestyle modifications – things that can be done every day to decrease the risk of breast cancer. As with most health conditions, exercising five times a week and maintaining a low body-mass index (BMI) can help, as well as avoiding alcohol and tobacco abuse. Doctors also recommend taking Vitamin D supplements and avoiding soy products.

“Soy products have estrogen-like effects on the body. Seventy to 80 percent of breast cancers eat estrogen, so we don't want to feed the fires,” Arguin says.

Women can call 717-531-5867 to make an appointment at the Breast Center in Hershey. Arguin says Penn State Hershey is also developing a high-risk clinic at the Oakwood Cancer Center in Mechanicsburg to provide services on both sides of the Susquehanna River.

“Information is power,” Arguin says. “When you don't know, it is scarier than when you do know. If women have information and options about how to manage their risk, it's not as scary as if they are feeling like they are waiting for something bad to happen to them.”

For more information on hereditary breast cancer and determining your risk, visit the following organizations online:

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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