Your genes are your body’s blueprint. Everything written in your genes affects your overall health. Lifestyle factors and the environment can influence the make-up and expressions of your genes, but some elements of the genes you were born with can’t be changed. Many women with ovarian cancer also have BRCA (breast cancer) gene mutations.
Your Genes and Your Health
We all have between 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Most genes are exactly the same from person to person. Any variations or differences help make up our unique physical appearances.
Many genes, like the ones that determine our eye or skin color, do not impact our health. Some genes, like the ones that pose as risk factors for serious conditions or diseases, are flags for concern. At birth, we inherit two copies of each gene from our parents.
BRCA1 and BRCA2
Around 15 percent of ovarian cancers are the result of inherited mutated genes. These inherited gene mutations are called family cancer syndromes. Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase a woman’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Mutations in these genes are responsible for the majority of inherited ovarian cancers.
Normal copies of the BRCA genes can actually reduce a woman’s risk for cancer. These genes are responsible for producing proteins that keep the DNA inside cells from growing and dividing abnormally. But if you have a mutated or defective copy of these breast cancer genes, the cancer-preventing role of the gene doesn’t function well. Your risk for developing ovarian or breast cancer therefore increases.
Not every woman with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation will develop cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime ovarian cancer risk for a woman with the mutated BRCA1 gene is between 35 and 70 percent. For women with the mutated BRCA2 gene, the lifetime ovarian cancer risk is between 10 and 30 percent. Women without the mutated genes have a lifetime ovarian cancer risk of less than 2 percent.
Preventing Cancer If You Have the BRCA Mutation
You may suspect you have the inherited gene mutation if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer. Family history is a good predictor of a possible genetic connection. A genetic test is needed to confirm or deny your suspicion.
Whether you have the BRCA gene mutation or not, a healthy lifestyle approach can help reduce additional risk factors. These strategies include:
- Oral contraceptives. Oral contraceptives may reduce your risk for ovarian cancer, even if you have the genetic mutation. Unfortunately, oral contraceptives may also increase your risk for breast cancer.
- Tubal ligation. Tubal ligation, or “having your tubes tied,” may reduce your risk for ovarian cancer if you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. But researchers aren’t positive if this actually reduces a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.
- Salpingo-oophorectomy. Salpingo-oophorectomy is a procedure that removes your ovaries and fallopian tubes. While this surgery reduces the risk of cancer for women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, it also means a loss of fertility. Some women who know they have the mutated genes choose to have this surgery.
How BRCA Genes Impact Treatment
Women with the BRCA mutation can typically use traditional ovarian cancer treatments. Additional treatments are also available for these women. Certain targeted therapies are designed specifically to treat the BRCA genes. The drug olaparib (Lynparza) prevents cells from repairing the damaged DNA of cancer cells. This drug can only be used in women with the mutation.
BRCA After Cancer
If you have either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, you’re more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. This risk doesn’t go away if you’ve already been diagnosed with or treated for either type of cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer after breast cancer is highest among those who have a family history of breast cancer.
Other Gene Mutations Related to Ovarian Cancer
Other gene mutations and genetic cancer syndromes may increase your risk for ovarian cancer. These include:
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC). This syndrome greatly increases a woman’s risk for colon cancer as well as cancer of the uterus and ovarian cancer. Women with HNPCC have around a 10 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome. Though rare, this genetic syndrome typically develops during childhood. It causes polyps in the stomach and intestine. The syndrome also increases the risk for some cancers, including ovarian cancer.
- PTEN tumor hamartoma syndrome. This syndrome, also known as Cowden disease, is related to thyroid problems and thyroid cancer. It also increases a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
- MUTYH-associated polyposis. Mutations in the MUTYH gene cause people with this syndrome to develop polyps in their colon and small intestine. This syndrome also increases a person’s risk for colon and ovarian cancer.
Getting a Genetic Test
Genetic tests can detect gene mutations that may increase your risk for ovarian cancer. If you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, or know that a close family member has the gene mutation, talk with your doctor about genetic testing. A genetic counselor can help you weigh the pros and cons of getting a genetic test.
Remember, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get ovarian cancer, even if a genetic test comes back positive for a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.