Earlier this year, we introduced you to Lindsay Avner, founder of Bright Pink. It was Lindsay’s hope to turn her experiences as a young woman at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer into a resource and supportive community for other young women. At the age of 23, she tested positive for a genetic mutation that put her at up to an 87% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and a 54% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. This knowledge led Lindsay to opt for a precautionary double mastectomy, thereby removing all of her healthy breast tissue and reducing her risk to that of the general population. Once her story made national news, she responded to the outpouring of support, questions and desire to get involved from other young women in similar scenarios around the country by creating Bright Pink.
In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is our hope that you will join the thousands of young women who are part of the Bright Pink movement and be bright with your breast and ovarian health. When you’re proactive with your breast and ovarian health, you’re doing your part to reduce your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer or detect it at an early stage.
Five Things Every Young Woman Should Ask Her Doctor
1. Get chatty and talk to your relatives.
Your family history can influence your own risk, so get to the bottom of your family’s cancer history on both your mother’s and father’s sides. Find out who had what type of cancer and their age of diagnosis.
2. Treat yourself to a healthy lifestyle.
Keep your body on the bright track with healthy habits. Maintain a healthy body weight and limit fat intake. Fill your plate with cancer-fighting foods such as fresh fruits and veggies and antioxidant powerhouses like blueberries and even a little dark chocolate. Exercise regularly and drink alcohol in moderation (meaning one drink per day or less).
3. Study up. Know the symptoms and what’s normal for you.
From plucking eyebrows to walking in heels, there are some things a young woman just needs to know. That includes the symptoms of breast and ovarian cancer and knowing what’s normal for your own body. Speak up if you notice any changes that persist over time! (Need to brush up on breast and ovarian cancer symptoms? Visit Bright Pink).
4. Make a date with a doctor you trust—at least once a year.
It’s important to squeeze in an annual visit with a primary care physician or OB/GYN—and if you tend to put these visits off because you’re uncomfortable with your doc, remember, it’s okay to date around until you find the perfect match. Clue your doctor in to the family history you discovered, and ask our five questions below to work together to develop a prevention and early detection strategy that’s right for you.
5. Get social and spread the word.
Encourage the women you love to join you in Being Bright Pink and taking a smart, proactive approach with your breast and ovarian health.
Understanding Hereditary Cancers
We all get genes, little pieces of instruction for our bodies, from our parents—half from mom, and half from dad. Just in the last twenty years, scientists have learned that some genes, called BRCA genes, can directly affect our risk for breast and ovarian cancer. That’s why these cancers tend to run in families. It’s not all bad news, though—understanding your genetic risk can empower you to take charge of your health!
If you learn that you are at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer, you and your doctors can develop a plan to lower your risk. If you already have breast or ovarian cancer, learning that it is hereditary can also help you and your doctors choose the right care for you.
Two genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2 (for breast cancer genes 1 and 2) can play a big role in breast and ovarian cancer. Normally, these genes stop breast and ovarian cells from growing and dividing uncontrollably. When an error occurs or there is a mutation found, it can increase the chances of cancer developing. We all have two copies of each gene. As long as at least one BRCA1 and one BRCA2 gene works normally, your risk for cancer won’t be raised. The two copies of each gene act as backups for each other. However, if both copies of either BRCA1 or BRCA2 are damaged, your body loses a tool for stopping cancer cells from growing. Some people are not born with normal BRCA genes—they inherit a mutation (or genetic damage) in one of these genes. Since they don’t have backup protection, any damage to the normal BRCA gene can lead to cancer.
Women with a BRCA mutation face a 60-87% lifetime risk for breast cancer and a 20-54% lifetime risk for ovarian cancer—much higher than the general population.
Understanding Your Risk for Hereditary Cancer
Your family and personal medical history holds the key to understanding your risk for breast or ovarian cancer. See the risk factors below to better understand your cancer risks. If your history does suggest an increased risk, consider seeing a genetic counselor to determine whether you are a candidate for genetic testing.
Find out which relatives—on both your mother’s and father’s sides—have had cancer, which types, and how old they were when diagnosed. Sometimes these conversations are tough, but remember, it’s important to gather as much information as you can.
Additionally, any of the following ailments found in a relative could be a sign of hereditary cancer:
• Bilateral breast cancer (cancer in both breasts)
• Breast and ovarian cancer
• Male breast cancer
• A BRCA mutation
The following ailments found in two family members may be a sign of hereditary cancer:
• Breast cancer (one before age 50)
• Ovarian cancer at any age
• One with breast cancer and one with ovarian cancer
The following ailments found in three family members may be a sign of hereditary cancer:
• Breast cancer at any age
Personal Cancer History
Your personal cancer history also affects your risk. Any of these events in your personal history could be a sign of hereditary breast or ovarian cancer:
• You were diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50
• You have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, or primary peritoneal cancer
• You have been diagnosed with breast cancer more than once
• You have been diagnosed with both breast and ovarian cancer
• You have been diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer at any age, and you are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (Central or Eastern European)
• You have been diagnosed with breast cancer and have a family member with breast or ovarian cancer
Learning that your family or personal history might suggest hereditary cancer can be scary. But it also gives you an opportunity to evaluate your options and take control of your health. Use it as a call to action! Talk to your doctor or a genetic counselor so together you can come up with a proactive strategy to manage your risk.
Talking to a Genetic Counselor
If your personal or family history suggests a risk of hereditary cancer, you might consider genetic testing. A genetic counselor or other doctor can help you decide if genetic testing is the right choice for you. Genetic counselors can also help you with insurance for testing and talk to you about the emotional aspects of being high risk—including stress, relationship strains, and worries about your family’s risks.
To help your family
If you decide against genetic testing, you can still help your family by banking your DNA through a simple blood draw. Your relatives can then test your DNA at a later date, empowering them to get the best information about their own risks.