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Breast cancer: Why you should get tested

Breast cancer: Why you should get tested Dr Judith Hurley.

By Sherie Holder-Olutayo | Mon, October 22, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Barbadian women need to get tested to see if they have the breast cancer gene. That strong message is coming from Miami-based medical oncologist Dr Judith Hurley, who was in Barbados recently doing gene testing through the Barbados Cancer Society.

“Miami is like part of the Caribbean, really. It’s almost like West Bahamas,” she said.

“So I see Caribbean women in my practice and lots of Bahamian women. So after a number of years I was thinking, all these Bahamian women, they’re so young when I see them – what’s going on there?

“So I decided to work with oncologists in The Bahamas to see if we couldn’t figure out what was going on. “

After looking at the ages of 266 Bahamian women with cancer on medical charts, Hurley realized that 52 per cent were diagnosed under the age of 50.

“In the United States the average woman with breast cancer is a 62-year-old lady but in The Bahamas it’s a 42-year-old lady – that’s two full decades earlier. And 42 per cent of the women had Stage 3 or Stage 4 breast cancer when they were diagnosed,” Hurley said. “You know there are four stages in cancer and what you really want is a low number. When they were being diagnosed, they were either incurable or barely curable.

“When you have young women with lots of breast cancer, you worry about there being a genetic cause.

“We know that breast cancer in older women is due to environmental factors but when women are getting cancer in their 30s and 40s, they haven’t been alive long enough to be exposed to anything to cause breast cancer.”

Scientists have now realized that there are breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.

After the doctor did a pilot study of 19 Bahamian women living in Miami, she found that nine out of 19, or 44 per cent, had the breast cancer gene.

With that information, she went to the Susan J. Komen Foundation to get a grant to do a study on women in The Bahamas. They found that 28 per cent of women they studied in The Bahamas had the gene.

“So while I was doing the study I would go every year to the Caribbean Association of Oncologists and update them [on] what I was doing,” Hurley said. “Two of those oncologists invited us to bring the study here to Barbados because of the data that was revealed. Once we decided to conduct the study here, the obvious place was at the Barbados Cancer Society, which has been incredible in sponsoring us.”

The study is being conducted in Barbados, Dominica, the Cayman Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The study asks for women with deep genetic roots in Barbados; women who have had either ovarian or breast cancer; women recently diagnosed or survivors; women with parents or grandparents from Barbados – and are willing to talk to a genetic counsellor.

“If the women say yes to all of that, we collect a saliva sample. It’s great because you don’t have to get any blood drawn and we’re done. It takes about an hour for the whole thing to be done.”

Hurley and her team have made three trips to Barbados to perform testing, she they’ll keep coming back in order to get everyone tested. So far they’ve tested 85 families.

According to Hurley, you inherit a gene from your mother or father which makes you much more likely to develop breast cancer.

“Each gene, you have two of them – one from mum and one from dad. If you inherit a normal one from mum and a normal one from dad, you’re like [most people].

“But if you inherit a normal one from mum and one with a change from dad, you’re more likely to develop breast cancer,” she said.

Along with looking for the breast cancer gene, the study also looks at what stage women are diagnosed, whether they go for a mammogram or find a lump themselves, what the tumour is like, and what’s causing it.

Hurley said the oncologists here who are participating have been very supportive.

Once women have found out that they have the breast cancer gene, they  are given options to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.

“The chance of a woman developing another breast cancer in her lifetime if she has the gene is over 64 per cent,” says genetic counsellor Talia. “The other thing is, once a woman has been identified as having the gene, we need to know if she has adult children. They would have to be tested as well [to see] if she’s passed it on to them.”

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