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Breast Cancer Is on the Rise—But So Are New Early Detection Strategies

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Well, here's some scary news: The National Cancer Institute reported findings recently that breast cancer cases in the United States may increase 50 percent by 2030.

Why the dramatic rise? Researchers credit it in part to women living longer (much of the breast cancer cases were in women over 70), but also to recent improvements in screening technology for the disease. See, screening for breast cancer early and often can allow doctors to eventually identify more cases of tumors, growths, and cancer risk genes than ever before. That's usually a good thing, but some experts say that the new improvements in technology could be doing more harm than good, causing women to seek treatment they might not need.

What you should do is start getting biennial mammograms once you hit 50, or 40 if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer. If you know you have a family history of these diseases, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends talking to your ob-gyn about whether you should consider a hereditary cancer risk assessment.

Today, an early breast cancer or genetic mutation diagnosis has never been easier to come by, even if the disease isn't on your family tree. Start-up organization Color Genomics, for example, announced last week that it will charge $249 for a (currently in development) simple saliva swab test that screens for BRCA1, BRCA2, and other cancer risk genes. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations account for the vast majority of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, according to ACOG. Remember Angelina Jolie's Newest Preventative Surgery? Yep, that was thanks to a BRCA gene mutation.

At one-tenth the cost of other genetic screening options for breast cancer, Color Genomics aims to be a heck of a lot more accessible to women without health insurance (or for those with insurance that won’t cover the testing). According to Mary-Claire King, a geneticist (and unpaid advisor to Color Genomics) whose work led to the discovery of the BRCA1 gene, half the women with dangerous mutations don’t qualify for genetic testing (or the insurance coverage for it) under current guidelines. (For example, family history of breast or ovarian cancer might not be evident, or the mutation may come from the father’s side.)

Some experts also think that the low cost of the test could be an indicator of the product's quality. Testing experts say that other companies often charge at least up to $1,500 for complete analyses of the BRCA genes, which include comprehensive interpretations of results and necessary genetic counseling. For just $250, they’re hesitant about whether Color Genomics will be able to do all this. Other geneticists fear the technology is too new and too unstudied to determine whether its results are accurate yet.

ACOG’s take on direct-to-consumer and home genetic testing like Color Genomics is to strongly discourage it, citing the “potential harm of a misinterpreted or inaccurate result." Other agencies feel similarly: “I worry it will give women information that we really don’t know what it means—and that women will make very difficult choices that turn out to be incorrect,” Frances Visco of the National Breast Cancer Coalition told NPR.

The rising breast cancer rates are certainly worrisome, but you might want to proceed with caution before seeking out a genetic screening on your own. If you’re concerned about a potential genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer, ACOG recommends consulting your doc who can guide you through the process and help determine the best route of action.

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