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Arnaldo Silva gave his daughter Vanessa the gift of life twice, the second time by saving it. If it weren’t for his breast cancer diagnosis, his daughter may have waited until age 40 to get a mammogram, as recommended by the American Cancer Society–but that would have been too late. “If he didn’t have cancer, I wouldn’t be here,” says Vanessa.
Vanessa, 33, received a diagnosis of breast cancer shortly after her father’s doctor insisted that Arnaldo’s four adult children——three daughters and one son——schedule tests to determine if they were BRCA2 positive, a gene mutation associated with breast and ovarian cancers as well as cancer of the pancreas, gallbladder, bile duct, and stomach.
Because Arnaldo, 58 at the time of his diagnosis, was BRCA2 positive, there was a 50% chance that his children would inherit the gene. This was indeed the case: Vanessa and her 29-year-old brother, Arnaldo III, tested positive for BRCA2, putting them at an 80% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.
The BRCA (short for breast cancer) gene test is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify mutations in either one of two breast cancer susceptibility genes–known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Unlike the second, BRCA1 is primarily associated with breast and ovarian cancer. However, not all women diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer have BRCA gene mutations. Still, according to the National Cancer Institute, women with an altered BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are three to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who don’t have alterations in those genes. Furthermore, women with an altered gene tend to develop these cancers at a younger age, before menopause–as was the case for Vanessa, who was 32 when she received the diagnosis. Like Arnaldo, men with altered genes (primarily with a BRCA2 alteration) have an increased risk of developing breast and prostate cancers.