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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Only High-Risk Women Need Breast Cancer Gene Test: Experts

Even those with family history of BRCA mutations should talk with professionals first, panel says


Earlier this month, the genetic testing company 23andMe announced it's no longer offering health information with its home-based kit service after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that the test is a medical device that requires government approval.

The new task force recommendations will be published online Dec. 23 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The task force's judgment carries heavy weight within the health care industry. For instance, the federal government's list of preventive health care measures that insurers must provide free of charge under the Affordable Care Act is based on USPSTF recommendations.

According to the task force, about 90 percent of American women do not have a family history associated with an increased risk for BRCA mutations, and even fewer will have a mutation that could lead to breast cancer.

"Only two or three women in a thousand have these mutations. Doing this is not going to prevent most breast cancers," Moyer said.

Medical experts are concerned that many women will undergo unnecessary surgery following an unclear genetic test, having their breasts or ovaries needlessly removed to prevent a cancer risk they never had.

"All of us have a copy of the BRCA gene, and some of us have a mutation," said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. "Some mutations increase the risk of breast cancer by up to 85 percent, others by 40 percent, others by 10 percent."

"But the woman who now knows she has a mutation is very frightened and very upset, and no amount of explaining that it's of little to no significance will help," Brawley continued.

Both Brawley and Moyer emphasized that any woman interested in BRCA screening should meet with a certified genetic counselor before proceeding. The counselor will take a very detailed clinical history of the patient and assess whether they would benefit from the test.

"The key here is that women who think they might want the test should talk to a genetic counselor, and that genetic counselor should explain the risks and benefits of the test and help them make the decision," Brawley said. "A physician shouldn't necessarily be the person doing it. It should be a certified genetic counselor. Most doctors are not skilled at doing this."

The task force is an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine. It routinely issues recommendations about clinical preventive services such as screenings, counseling services and preventive medications.

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