The first step in conquering cancer is actually knowing that you have the disease. Time is of the essence, so an early diagnosis and timely treatment increase the chances of a positive outcome.
That is why screening and genetic testing are so important when it comes to breast cancer, the most common form of cancer in women. Regular screenings lead to earlier detection, which enables the clinical teams at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre to determine the best course of treatment right away.
“The CIBC Breast Assessment Centre is an Ontario Breast Screening Program site which offers expert care to women with breast concerns,” explains Kowuthamie Tharma, a Genetic Counsellor at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre. “It’s recommended that a woman at average risk begins screening with mammograms every two years starting at age 50.”
Early detection benefits patients like Lani Khan from Dundas, who had a mammogram in 2015.
“I was very concerned when they found a tumour,” recalls Lani. “I went in for a biopsy a week later. That’s when reality hit and I started crying during my appointment.”
Lani had extra reason to be emotional – her daughter had died from breast cancer.
“I realized what she must have gone through,” Lani says. “Even though I was devastated to be diagnosed with breast cancer, I was grateful that they’d detected it early. My daughter’s cancer was detected much later, when it was already stage IV.”
Surgery was performed a few weeks later to remove Lani’s tumour. After 15 rounds of radiation as a precaution to prevent the cancer from returning, she began a regimen of oral medication that continues to this day. Fortunately, the cancer never returned and she has been cancer-free for four years.
Genetics vs. coincidence
Sometimes, as with the case of Lani and her daughter, breast cancer can affect more than one generation of a family. As Genetic Counsellor Erin Kelter explains, it could be related to a hereditary predisposition or it may be a random occurrence.
“Only about 5 to 10 percent of cancers are hereditary in nature, but someone who has a strong personal or family history of cancer should consider a genetic assessment,” says Erin.
Genetic testing for eligible patients involves looking for mutations in various genes known to be associated with hereditary cancer. Mutations affect the ability of these genes to protect the body from cancer cells.
“We want the patients and their physicians to have as much information as possible up front to help them make treatment decisions.” – Erin
The CIBC Breast Assessment Centre has a high-risk screening program for individuals with a significantly increased risk of breast cancer. If someone is determined to be at high risk, they are eligible to have an annual mammogram and breast MRI between the ages of 30 and 69.
Lori-Anne Cunningham from Hamilton is one breast-cancer patient who underwent genetic testing at the CIBC Breast Assessment Centre. Her mother and two of her aunts had breast cancer.
“I had blood taken for genetic testing when I was undergoing radiation therapy at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre,” explains Lori-Anne. “If mutations were found in my genes, then it would mean that my sons were at a greater risk of certain other cancers and would need regular screenings themselves.”
Ultimately, no genetic link was found in Lori-Anne’s family.
“I’m still happy to have had the testing done,” she says. “It was important to know either way so I could understand the potential risks for my sons.”
Information is key
The team at the CIBC Breast Assessment Centre collaborates with specialists from different disciplines at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre to ensure that breast cancer patients receive the most effective and timely treatment.
“We want the patients and their physicians to have as much information as possible up front to help them make treatment decisions,” says Erin.
Genetic counselors like Erin and Kowuthamie take pride in knowing their work can make a difference in patients’ lives.
“It’s empowering to equip patients with valuable information,” says Kowuthamie. “This information may improve their care and even affect the future care of their children and grandchildren.”