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Parents Often Tell Kids About Abnormal Genes Before Interventions Needed

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Most inherited cases of breast cancer have been associated with mutations in two genes: BRCA1, which stands for BReast CAncer gene 1, and BRCA2, or BReast CAncer gene 2. Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation have up to a 72% risk of developing breast cancer by age 80. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are found in 5% to 10% of all breast cancer cases in the United States.

If you haven't been diagnosed with breast cancer, learning that you have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can be stressful and scary. It's also very scary and stressful for your children to learn you have abnormal genes associated with breast cancer.

A study offers a word of caution to people who know they have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Your first thought may be to tell your children right away about your increased risk. You also may want to tell your children that they, too, may have an abnormal gene. This reaction is normal and completely justified. You want to take charge over the unknown, as well as protect your loved ones. But this study suggests that waiting until your children are adults to talk to them about genetic abnormalities may be a better idea.

When parents told their younger children about their abnormal genes, the children were upset, anxious and scared. But because they're children, nothing really can be done to reduce any risk they may face. Aggressive breast cancer screening and other possible risk-reducing steps aren't recommended until early adulthood.

If you find yourself in this situation, you might want to think carefully before sharing information about your genetic test results with your children before they're adults. When you do share this information with your children, you might want to ask your doctor or your genetic counselor to help you. These professionals can help you and your children make sense of the information, manage stress and fear, and use the information to ensure the healthiest future possible.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Jan. 24, 2019, with updated information on cancer risk associated with BRCA mutations.

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