On June 13, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that companies cannot patent naturally occurring human genes. This landmark ruling is a giant step forward for women’s health because it breaks down barriers and opens doors for more accessible and affordable testing for the BRCA gene mutation.
Why Is BRCA genetic testing important?
We all carry BRCA1 and BRCA2, both naturally occurring human genes. However, a BRCA mutation, or abnormalcy, can lead to specific cancers. In women these include breast and ovarian cancer. While not all cancers are linked to the BRCA mutation, some women have greater risks.
If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer there could be a link to the BRCA gene mutation. The mutation is also more common in women of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. While my family had no history of breast cancer, my father and grandfathers had prostate cancer and my grandmother had pancreatic cancer, both linked to BRCA gene mutation.
What the ruling means to women
The Supreme Court ruling allows more companies to offer BRCA testing. Until now Myraid Genetics has held a patent on the BRCA gene. The test cost thousands of dollars and was not always covered by health insurance unless a woman was at risk. I was already diagnosed with breast cancer when I took the blood test.
When my test came back positive I chose prophylactic surgery to remove my ovaries and Fallopian tubes and reduce my increased risk of having ovarian cancer. It was a day surgery and laproscopic with an incision in my belly button, so there are no scars.
The ruling means women have more control over management of their health. It means you can decide to take the test and understand your risks. If you test positive you can choose entering a surveillance program, prophylactic surgery or just be more vigilant about mammograms and breast self-examinations.
What it means to your family
Some women fear knowing if they carry the mutation because it can be passed down to your children. Other family members may also carry it and may consider taking the test. As a daughter I would want to know the answer. As a parent I would want to understand what I need to do to inform and protect my children.
Prophylactic surgery is an option but not a requirement although your doctor may recommend it. If you are of child bearing age, you need to decide if you plan to have more children before under going surgery to remove your ovaries. This is something to discuss with your Ob/GYN and a fertility specialist.
Knowing you carry the genetic mutation means you need to make some decisions about reducing risk and prevention. And it means you need to be more attentive about your managing your health. But as a woman and as a parent, shouldn’t you be doing this anyway?