Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women. About 5% of breast cancers have a genetic component-a possible mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. These genes are normally involved in suppression of tumor cells. Women who have the BRCA1 mutation have an approximately 80% risk of developing breast cancer. They also have an approximately 40% risk of developing ovarian cancer.

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer with multiple first degree relatives with the disease, get tested for mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. A family member with the disease must be tested first. If that person has the mutant gene, tests will be done on you to look for the same mutation. If you are found to have the mutation, you may want to consider mastectomies (removal of your breasts) or oopherectomy (removal of your ovaries) as a preventative measure.

At this point, BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing is not beneficial as a screening tool unless you have a strong family history of the disease. In addition, negative tests do not rule out the possibility of developing breast or ovarian cancer later.

One important issue to consider is the impact genetic testing may have on your future. It is still unclear how insurance companies will react to a positive screening. You must consider the chance that an insurance company will classify a positive test as a preexisting condition, with the possibility of limited medical coverage in the future.