Buddy Check: Genetic Testing to Prevent Cancer

Moscow, Lackawanna County - It's a drastic move that could save your life. Recently, actress Angelina Jolie spoke publicly about her decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer. It's an option some women are considering as preventative treatment.

Maria Serra, 50, of Moscow had that surgery and says it was right choice for her survival.

"My dad's mom passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 46. And my dad's sister, my aunt passed away from breast cancer at the age of 46," explained Serra; with that family history, she knew her risk of developing the disease.

After a routine mammogram showed she had the early stages of breast cancer, her doctor recommended genetic testing. "It was nothing more than a simple blood test and a few weeks later my result came back positive for the BRCA 1 mutation." That gave her an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer and 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer. In 2008, Maria made a dramatic choice -- removal of her breast tissue - a bilateral mastectomy, and removal of her ovaries.

"Me personally I have two children, and knowing how my dad said how difficult it was losing a mom to cancer at an early age, I just wanted to do anything," she explained.

Doctors are thankful women like Serra and Jolie are speaking out and it's leading to an increase in popularity of genetic testing and in turn preventative care.

"There's developing understanding that there are things they can do prospectively or preventatively to change their risk of breast cancer and prevent breast cancer," says Dr. Richard Emanuelson of Hematology & Oncology Associates in Dunmore.

Dr. Emanuelson says there are all kinds of preventative options for women at risk of hereditary cancers. Alternatives to surgery include adding routine MRIs in addition to mammograms and including ultrasounds in gynecological exams, even taking oral medications.

But first you need to find out if you carry the cancer causing BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation.

Michelle Gazillo councils people on genetic testing. She says the process is often covered by insurance if a patient meets national guidelines and proves to have the risk factors that run in the family including:

- Breast cancer in a family member younger than 50

- Ovarian or fallopian tube cancer

- Breast, ovarian, prostate or pancreatic cancer in two or more close relatives

- Male breast cancer

Since her ordeal, Serra formed the local chapter of FORCE or "Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered" for people at risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. "It was just so nice to meet people that have walked in my shoes."

Doctors say, only about 10 percent of women run the risk of developing hereditary cancers and the preventative care won't eliminate the disease for good. But for Maria Serra, it just may have saved her life.

"I looked at knowing I had the BRCA mutation as a gift and I can be proactive with my health."

Something her beloved grandmother didn't have the chance to do.

Check with your insurance provider to see if you are covered for this procedure from testing to the treatment; if not Dr. Emanuelson says the Susan G. Komen Foundation will cover some of the costs.

And, don't forget, this is your reminder to call your buddy and remind her -- or him -- to do a breast self-exam. It's a call that could save a life.

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