Knowing Moms’ Hereditary Cancer Risk Doesn’t Affect Kids’ Quality of Life
Telling children that their mothers have a genetic risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer doesn’t affect their long-term quality of life, according to a study.
The research was published online on July 21, 2022, by the journal Pediatrics. Read the abstract of “Long-Term Adaptation Among Adolescent and Young Adult Children to Familial Cancer Risk.”
About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by mutations in certain genes passed from parent to child.
Two of the most well-known genes that can mutate and raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who inherit a mutation in either of these genes — from their mothers or fathers — have a much higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
The average woman’s risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime is about 13%. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), women with a BRCA1 mutation have between a 55% and 72% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and women with a BRCA2 mutation have between a 45% and 69% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.
About the study
Little research has been done on how children react when they learn a parent has a genetic mutation linked to a higher risk of cancer. Limited anecdotal observations suggest that some children may make healthier lifestyle choices, including not smoking, eating nutritious food, limiting alcohol, and exercising. Still, other children, especially daughters of mothers with a BRCA mutation, may worry excessively about their risk of breast and ovarian cancer and believe their personal risk of cancer is higher than it actually is.
At the same time, parents may hesitate to tell their children about their genetic test results because:
there are no risk-reducing steps children can take
genetic testing is only recommended for adults, not for children
In this study, the researchers wanted to offer scientific evidence on the long-term reactions and lifestyle choices of children whose mothers had BRCA genetic testing.
The study included 272 adolescents and young adults from Boston; Houston; Scarborough in Maine; and Washington, DC whose mothers had BRCA genetic testing one to five years earlier:
184 participants were female and 88 were male
about half the participants were younger than 18 and half were 18 or older (they ranged in age from 12 to 24)
230 participants were white and 42 were of other races and ethnicities
none of the participants had undergone genetic testing
About 76% of the participants’ mothers had been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, and 17.3% of the mothers had tested positive for a BRCA mutation.
The researchers did telephone interviews with the adolescents and young adults and asked about:
lifestyle choices related to cancer risk
quality of life
Lifestyle choices related to cancer risk were no different between participants whose mothers had tested positive for a BRCA mutation or had a history of cancer and participants whose mothers had negative genetic testing results or had no history of cancer:
about 25% had smoked cigarettes
more than 33% said they’d had more than 20 alcoholic drinks
nearly 90% didn’t meet national physical activity guidelines (at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day)
Young adults were more likely to have smoked cigarettes and had alcohol than adolescents.
Overall, the adolescents and young adults had high levels of cancer awareness:
They knew about cancer prevention and cancer causes.
They felt confident they could take steps to reduce their cancer risk.
They planned to have age- and gender-appropriate cancer screenings.
They thought genes were moderately important in determining cancer risk.
They planned to learn about genetic risk factors linked to cancer.
They thought lifestyle and health factors were moderately important in determining cancer risk.
Overall, the adolescents and young adults had good quality of life:
They were not particularly distressed about cancer.
They said they had moderate general life stress.
They had few depressive symptoms.
They had low anxiety.
The researchers also found that:
young adults were more likely than adolescents to think they had a higher risk of developing cancer
girls and young women were more likely than boys and young men to think their cancer risk was higher
children of cancer survivors were more likely than children whose mothers had no history of cancer to think their cancer risk was higher
“Our findings underscore the resilience of children of mothers who [have a BRCA mutation], especially those adolescents and young adults who have grown up around cancer in the family and learned how to cope,” senior author Kenneth P. Tercyak, PhD, professor of oncology and pediatrics and leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Georgetown Lombardi, said in a statement. “The study’s findings will help us learn how to build on young people’s cancer awareness and their interest in knowing more about their family’s health history.”
What this means for you
If you know you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation and are a parent, this study offers some reassuring results. Knowing that their mothers tested positive for a BRCA mutation or had a personal history of cancer didn’t affect children’s long-term quality of life. The researchers concluded that it is safe and appropriate for mothers to share their BRCA genetic test results with their teen and young adult children.
Still, girls and children of cancer survivors were more likely to think they had a higher risk of cancer than they might actually have.
Depending on your unique family situation, it may make sense for you and your children to talk to a counselor who specializes in family cancer issues, or with a genetic counselor who can offer information and advice about testing and risk-reducing strategies.
Learn more about Genetic Testing.
Listen to The Breastcancer.org Podcast episode with Cristina Nixon, licensed certified genetic counselor, on genetic testing and genetic mutations, including mutations that are linked to higher breast cancer risk.
Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor
— Last updated on September 20, 2022, 9:29 PM