Although there is vast information now known about cancer, the average person –including those diagnosed with the disease– know little about it. A recent survey of 2,500 Americans published in the journal Genetics in Medicine shows that despite 75 per cent knowing about actress Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy, most remained in the dark about the risk of breast cancer. Fewer than 10 per cent of people had an accurate understanding of the BRCA gene mutation that Jolie carries. And as Christie Nicholson reports in Scientific American, Jolie’s story has left the public with an inaccurate knowledge of breast cancer.
It is important to note that all women carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 human suppressor genes, but fewer than 1 per cent of all women have any mutations in these genes.
Those women who develop the mutations have up to an 80 per cent risk of developing breast cancer by the age of 90. About 55 per cent of those women with BRCA1 and 25 per cent of women with BRCA2 mutations will also have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Of the total number of breast cancer cases, fewer than 13 per cent are linked to BRCA mutations. Epidemiological studies also show that there are more breast cancers diagnosed in women with no family history of the disease, than there are in women with a history of breast cancer in the family.
Found in all humans, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human tumor suppressor genes found in breast and other tissue. They are caretaker genes that repair DNA so that when a cell replicates it does not duplicate errors. If these genes cannot repair the DNA, they make the cell commit suicide (apoptosis).
If BRCA1 or BRCA2 themselves become damaged by a mutation, they will have increased chances of not being able to repair the DNA, nor make the cell commit suicide. This increases the risk for these cells forming a mass within the breast. It is the mutation to these genes and not the genes themselves that are linked to breast cancer.
While a woman can be born with faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2, it does not mean she will automatically develop breast cancer. She will have to be exposed to specific environmental influences which then alter the DNA of her breast cells. These then require the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes to repair them, and because they are faulty, they may not be able to successfully do this (or make the cell commit suicide). The major influences that cause mutations to these genes are emotional stress, lack of quality sleep, food with specific plant lectins, superantigen viruses, as well as certain poisons and toxins.
Thus a woman can be born with damaged BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and never develop breast cancer by living a lifestyle that avoids any mutation of the genes. So while Angelina Jolie’s story may have helped raise awareness of breast cancer as a whole, it is important that people seek their own understanding of the risks of the disease and don’t limit their knowledge to Hollywood media reports.