December 8, 2021

Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer - Pros and Cons

Genetic testing for breast cancer looks for specific inherited genetic mutations associated with a higher than average risk of breast cancer
Tomohiro Takano

Genetic testing for breast cancer looks for specific inherited genetic mutations associated with a higher than average risk of breast cancer. There are several benefits to this testing; first and foremost, it can allow you to prepare and take steps to identify and treat the condition if it does arise.

However, there are limitations to this genetic testing, such as the fact that the presence of risk factors does not mean that you will develop breast cancer. Instead, this may never occur but still weigh on the mind of you and your family and friends.

This makes it essential to understand the pros and cons of this testing before you choose to perform one. So, let's take a look at who these tests might be suitable for and the advantages and disadvantages of genetic testing for cancer so you can decide if it is right for you.

When Should You Consider a Genetic Test for Breast Cancer

The most significant factor in considering whether or not genetic testing for breast cancer is right for you is your family's history. If you have had a parent or sibling with breast cancer, particularly under 50 years of age, you are at a far higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Depending on your family's history, genetic testing may be an excellent option to measure your risk level further. To determine how much risk your family history may have, begin by collecting your family history.

When doing this:

  • Include all parents, grandparents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces.
  • Include also types of cancers that a family member has been diagnosed with, including information such as the age of diagnosis. If the family member subsequently passed away, including the age and cause of death if applicable.
  • Include both sides of the family, both mother and father. Remember that ovarian and breast cancer from your father's side of the family matters just as much.
  • Keep your record up to date with regular adjustments for new ovarian or breast cancer cases in the family.

The most important cases to keep track of are those within your family's first and second degree. So, make sure to at the very least consider relatives within this range and the age at which they were diagnosed.

The CDC recommends genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer for those who have:

  • A strong family health history of breast cancer
  • A moderate family health history of breast cancer with Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
  • A personal history of breast cancer with certain criteria, such as type of cancer and age of diagnosis
  • A personal history of fallopian tube, ovarian, or primary peritoneal cancer
  • A known inherited BRCA1, BRCA2, or other mutation in the family

For those who are incapable of mapping their family's history of cancer, such as those who were adopted or otherwise are incapable of contacting relatives, you may still choose to undergo genetic testing. If you are concerned or have been diagnosed with cancer at an early age, it may be good to contact a doctor to discuss if testing is right for you.

How Is Testing Done?

Genetic is performed by taking a sample of saliva. This can be collected by swabbing the inner cheek, and then the sample will be sent to a lab for genetic analysis.

Several different mutations may be responsible for breast cancer. However, most tests look for one or a few possible mutations of the BRCA genes. Some extensive tests may look for more of the many different variants. However, this depends on the situation.

For example, suppose an individual is having the testing performed because they have a family member that possesses a particularly known BRCA mutation. In that case, a test may be performed to look for this mutation. But, in most cases, these tests look for a few of the most prominent BRCA mutations associated with many cases.

Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer — Pros and Cons

Only about 5%–12% of cancers are caused by genetics, but that small number doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider testing if you’re in the high-risk category for breast cancer. The goal of testing is early diagnosis and treatment and more positive outcomes. 

If testing reveals that you have a hereditary risk for breast cancer, healthcare professionals recommend that your family members also undergo testing.

Regarding genetic testing for breast cancer, it’s difficult to say whether involving family members is a positive or negative. On the one hand, you could be causing unnecessary stress and worry. But on the other hand, you could save the lives of others by getting tested yourself.

Before deciding whether genetic testing is right for you, it’s important to stop and consider the various advantages and disadvantages.

Pros of Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer

Stress may not directly cause cancer, but studies have established a link between cancer and chronic stress. If worrying about your genetic risk for cancer is causing you constant anxiety, testing may actually reduce your chances of developing cancer.

When you're considering genetic testing for breast cancer pros and cons, it’s important to factor in your lifestyle, including self-care habits, and how the information could change your life.

There are several advantages to genetic testing for breast cancer. These include:

  • Relief From Uncertainty: Being aware that you are free from a particular mutation that creates a higher risk can help ease anxiety. It is a relief to know that you and your children are at less risk, and for those that do carry a mutation, they may gain comfort in knowing they have greater control.
  • More Information To Make Informed Decisions: By having a clearer picture of your rank factors, you can better understand what medical testing and treatments are called for. Depending on the particular situation, this may mean greater monitoring and more tests and testing for family members.
  • Help Inform Family Members About Potential Risks: If the test comes back, post it every this indicates that you possess an inherited genetic mutation that places you at a greater risk of breast cancer. This also shows that family members have this same mutation, and by knowing this, you can share that information with family members so that they can also seek more information and testing.
  • Early Detection: Genetic testing for breast cancer provides information on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are associated with an elevated risk of breast cancer. If you know you have these mutations, you can do more to reduce your risk of developing cancer. Healthy lifestyle changes, increased screening, and prophylactic surgery are some of the available options. 
  • Personalized Care: Fortunately, the days of one-size-fits-all cancer treatment are long gone. Healthcare specialists who focus on caring for patients with high-risk breast cancer can develop individualized treatment plans to specifically target specific cancer strains. Genetic testing could help ensure that you receive the highest level of care possible.

Cons of Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer

Knowledge is power, but it also brings responsibility. Knowing you’re at a higher risk for something that may never happen could change the way you live or enjoy your life. 

While most health experts agree that genetic testing is advisable for those who meet the risk category, there are also some potential disadvantages to genetic testing for breast cancer.

  • Genetic Testing May Raise Your Anxiety: Some people may not be ready to know that they are at a significantly increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer. This may raise your stress levels, causing more harm than good.
  • Results May Be Inconclusive or Uncertain: There have been concerns that unrecognized mutations may significantly impact overall risk. This means that a test may come back negative, but you may still have a higher than average risk or a positive test and a low risk, which could lead to worse decision-making.
  • Potential Negative Impact on the Family: Not all relatives may want to know the genetic test results and may not even understand why anyone would like to learn more about their cancer risk. Some of these relatives may even be angry with you for sharing information they find upsetting.
  • You Might Not Be a Good Candidate for Genetic Testing: Not all women need genetic testing for breast cancer. The mutations that result in an increased risk for breast cancer are pretty rare. Therefore, if an individual does not already have cancer, they should only get the test if their family history shows an increased potential for a BRCA mutation.
  • Cost: Genetic testing for breast cancer can be expensive, and your insurance plan may or may not cover the costs. If finances are a concern, check with your insurance agent to ask about coverage and get help finding an in-network provider.
  • Privacy Concerns: When it comes to protecting your privacy, most DNA testing companies have multi-layer security protocols to prevent personal information from becoming public. However, it’s always possible that information could be leaked. Before choosing a testing company, read all policy statements regarding security and privacy carefully. Beware of contract wording that grants permission to sell your data to third parties.

FAQs About Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer Pros and Cons

What Support Is Available if I Test Positive for BRCA Mutations?

Several medical interventions are available for those who test positive for breast cancer mutations. They include:

  • Preventive medications
  • Clinical breast exams
  • Lifestyle changes
  • More complete cancer screenings, including screening for ovarian cancer and yearly MRI screenings

Prophylactic surgery (removing one or both breasts to prevent cancer growth) may also be an option. 

What Genetic Material Is Analyzed for Testing?

A sample of saliva or blood is needed to test for genetic mutations. The sample is sent to a laboratory for analysis only. A medical professional must provide all diagnoses and treatment plans. 

No One in My Family Has Had Breast Cancer. Should I Still Consider Genetic Testing?

A strong family history of cancer is an indication that you’re at risk, but it isn’t the only one. Speak with your doctor if you’re unsure whether genetic testing is right for you. 

What Happens if Tests Show That I’m Positive for Genetic Breast Cancer Risk?

A positive genetic test doesn’t mean you have or will develop breast cancer. Consult your physician to develop a self-care plan that includes appropriate screening and preventive lifestyle changes.

Genetic Testing Site

23andMe is in the market for genetic testing for breast cancer. These people who order the test will need to put a small amount of their saliva in a container. Then, they will mail. The container to the address given for the laboratory will be analyzed. When the analysis is complete, the test results will be sent to the consumer.

BRCA gene mutations are rare, and according to the FDA, they exist in 2% of Ashkenazi Jewish women and .1% of the general US population.

Cancer is generally not caused by genetic mutations but is instead caused by several factors, such as smoking, obesity, and a variety of other lifestyle choices. Your doctor can help you assess your cancer risk and help you decide if genetic testing such as the 23andMe test is proper for you.

To unlock more insights from your DNA, please visit Genomelink.


Tomohiro Takano
Tomohiro Takano
Co-Founder and CEO