Womens Health

The Breast Cancer Gene

The Body's Morse Code

The body has a remarkable communications system made up of cells, chromosomes, genes and DNA.  Genes are actually the carriers of the building instructions for cells produced by the DNA, proteins which control the structure and function of cells.  If there are abnormalities in the DNA, these are passed on as faulty information in the genes.  It's something like having a typing error perpetuated in all copies of a book that has been printed.

Breast Cancer Genes

There are two genes which have been isolated through research as prominent in breast cancer.  These genes have been labeled BRCA1 and BRCA2, using the first two letters of breast and cancer in their description.  In their normal state of function they prevent breast cancer by producing a protein which controls cells and stops them from growing out of control.  Everybody, men and women alike, have two copies of these genes in most cells of their bodies.  As long as one of the two cells in the pair is operating well and is strong, the cells in the breast will function normally.  Should both copies of the gene become abnormal or mutated, then growth control is eliminated and the cells grow rapidly, even gaining access into healthy tissue.  If these cells do gain access by invading healthy tissue it is called invasive breast cancer.  If the cells grow too much but don't invade healthy tissue, then it is called non-invasive breast cancer.

Inherited or Acquired?

Breast Cancer is caused by mutated genes and these genes can be inherited or acquired.  Only 10% of breast cancers are the result of inherited genetic mutation.  Some people are born with the mutated gene, inheriting one normal gene from one parent, and the abnormal gene from the other parent.  90% of cases of breast cancer are from non-inherited, acquired genetic abnormality.  There are a variety of factors which can cause a gene to become mutated.  An error in gene reproduction, wear and tear,diet, toxins and any number of other factors can be related.

Regardless whether you inherited the abnormal gene or acquired it, you still have one normal, healthy gene which will work to keep cell growth in control and will prevent cancer.  If that one normal gene breaks down for any reason, then cancer will result.

Risk of Developing Cancer

During the life span of 90 years, the average woman in the US has about a 12% risk of developing breast cancer.  Women with mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes have up to an 85% risk of developing breast cancer by the time they reach age 70.  These women are also at greater risk for the development of ovarian cancer with a lifetime risk of 55% for those with BRCA1 abnormalities and 25% for those with BRCA2 mutations.  Compare that with 1.8% of women without an inherited BRCA mutation.

It is very important to remember that even though there is increased risk, not everyone with an inherited BRCA abnormality will develop cancer.  There are other risks involved which can contribute to mutations such as lifestyle and environment or the function of other genes within the body. 

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