Researchers identify 'red flag' breast cancer genes to predict disease chances

So far, 80 genes found to influence cancer chances

INDIANAPOLIS - Roughly one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in her life, and new research could soon help determine which women are included in that count.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic figured out a way to measure by percentage points how likely a woman is to develop the disease.

The findings could drastically change the screening and treatment procedures for women like Bobbe Brown-Schuster, who says she has always assumed she'd get cancer based on her family history.

"Breast cancer runs in my family," she said. "My grandmother died of breast cancer at the age of 62. My mother died of breast cancer at the age of 72."

Four years ago, after talking to a number of doctors and weighing her options, she decided to have both of her breasts removed.

"It was really the best choice for me, just to go ahead and have the mastectomies," Brown-Schuster said.

It's what many doctors tell women when they discover the breast cancer gene runs in their family.

But having the breast cancer gene doesn't necessarily mean someone is going to get cancer. Every woman is made up of so many other genes, and every single one of them also plays a role in determining whether or not a person develops cancer.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, led by Dr. Fergus Couch, are studying those genes.

Via Skype, Couch explained he's looking at the genetic makeup of roughly 120,000 women -- including woman who have the breast cancer gene and women who don't -- to narrow down what other genes, what combination of genes, come together to influence whether a woman will get breast cancer.

"We're talking about many other genes in the human genome that can have defects, that can influence that risk," Couch said.

Couch said so far he's identified as many as 80 other genes that can play a role in whether a woman develops breast cancer.

"We're identifying more and more of these genes all the time," he said.

Couch predicts that soon -- within two to five years -- a simple genetic test will make it possible for patients to find out how many of the genes they have and exactly how likely they are to get cancer. 

Patients will essentially be able to walk out of the clinic knowing whether they have a 20 percent chance, or as high as a 90 percent chance, of developing the disease.

In Brown-Schuster's case she could end up finding out that, based up on the other genes in her body, she isn't at an exceptionally high risk for cancer after all.

But she said she has no regrets, because regardless of what her cancer risk was before her double mastectomy, her risk now is significantly lower.

"I'm glad I made the decision I made," she said.

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