Free Genetic Test Screens for Breast & Ovarian Cancer
By Sarah J. Schmidt
If a simple test could predict with exceptional accuracy that you will get cancer, would you want to know? Huntsville native Andrea Williams doesn’t have to think twice. Her answer: a resounding “yes.”
With a family history of breast cancer, 30-year old Williams knows she’s at higher risk than most women. When she heard about the genetic screening test that Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Kailos Genetics were giving away free to 30-year old women in Madison County, she eagerly stepped forward.
The test assesses 23 known genes, including two for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer labeled as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, plus several others connected with colon and endometrial cancers. Scientists think there are about 20,000 genes in the human body, which means this test is probably just the tip of the genetic iceberg.
But for Williams, the test is a start. “I want to prepare myself for the fight with as much knowledge as I can acquire,” she said.
That’s exactly the point, said Kailos Chief Scientific Officer, Troy Moore. “If you’re in a high risk category, it’s important that you start mammograms around age 30 and continue doing those regularly,” he said. Knowing you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene definitely puts you in the high risk category, where he said, “It is extremely important to detect cancer early when it’s treatable or to take more proactive steps.”
Women aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the genetic test. Men also carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, even if they don’t develop cancers themselves. Therefore, the information provided by genetic testing makes good sense for them as well, particularly if their mother or grandmother had breast or ovarian cancer.
The simple test involves rubbing a small cotton swab on the inside of your cheek, then mailing it to Kailos for processing. The results are ready in about two weeks. The FDA, which regulates genetic testing, requires participants to obtain permission from their doctor before viewing their results in case the test reveals serious medical risks that might require professional medical advice. But if participants don’t have a doctor or prefer not to share results with their doctors, then Kailos provides a doctor with whom participants can discuss results.
Suppose you test positive; does that mean you’ll get cancer? Not necessarily, but the test can tell you what your likelihood of getting breast or ovarian cancer will be. If you test positive, you will definitely want to consider some additional options, says Kimberly Strong, PhD, HudsonAlpha Bioethicist.
“If you find out you’re positive then you know you’re at increased risk, so you should be screened earlier and perhaps have discussions with your doctor about risk reducing measures like the potential for surgeries,” she says.
But if you test negative, Strong is quick to caution against a false sense of security. She should know. She is herself a breast cancer survivor, yet she tested negative for the breast cancer genes. A lot of other factors play a crucial role in developing cancer, such as environmental causes and individual genetic makeup, she stressed.
“I don’t want someone to think: ‘I’m negative for this test so I can’t get breast cancer, and therefore, I don’t need to do mammograms.’ That’s the wrong message. This test is supplemental to traditional screening; it’s not in place of and should never be thought of that way. It’s an additional piece of the puzzle,” Strong emphasized.
For the next year, HudsonAlpha and Kailos are offering a free breast cancer screening kit to any Madison County woman who is 30 years old. If you don’t qualify for the free test, but are over the age of 19, you can order a test kit for $225 online at kailosgenetics.com. If you live in Madison or the surrounding counties of Jackson, Limestone, Marshall and Morgan, you may purchase the kit for $99 through the Information is Power initiative sponsored by HudsonAlpha and Kailos Genetics.