This case represents a composite of many different patients and is not meant to represent an individual. Any resemblance to an actual patient is coincidental.
A 32-year-old African American woman presented with a self-palpated left breast mass (axillary tail at 9 o’clock position). The patient was a nonsmoker, was otherwise healthy, and had no family history of breast or any other cancer. She had never used oral contraceptives or hormones, was never pregnant, her menarche was at age 12 years, and she had regular menstrual periods. On physical examination she had a 1-cm left breast mass and a palpable left axillary lymph node. A complete diagnostic workup revealed a 2-cm left breast mass. An ultrasound-guided biopsy of the axillary lymph node was positive for invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). The final diagnosis was left breast cancer, stage IIB IDC, T1N1M0, ER+, PR+, HER2 2+ by immunohistochemistry, fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) was 2.4, confirming a HER2+ tumor.
Anita Aggarwal, DO, PhD. What is the role of genetic counseling and testing in this young patient who does not have a family history of breast cancer?
Vickie L. Venne, MS. This patient absolutely would be a candidate for counseling and testing. From a genetic counseling perspective, one of the first points has to do with what “no family history of cancer” means. Typically, in a fast-paced clinic, a patient will be asked “Does anybody else in your family have cancer?” And it’s not uncommon to get the answer “no.” Genetic counselors collect specific information on at least the first- and second-degree relatives, so we end up with 3 generations. This includes both the maternal and the paternal histories. We find that people who initially report no family history of cancer are often just thinking of breast cancer, even if the provider’s question is broad. When we start digging, we often find other cancers because cancer is common.
The other issue is that she was diagnosed at a young age. Clearly, 32 years is much younger than we typically see in breast cancer, and we know that individuals with hereditary cancers often have an earlier age of onset. With no other information, her a priori risk of having a BRCA1/2 mutation would be < 2.5%.
Regardless, based on current National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines, she would be a testing candidate. We would also recommend testing for more than just BRCA1/2. In the last few decades, there have been many genes identified that are associated with an increased susceptibility to cancer. Many of these genes are part of syndromes, so if you had a mutation, that also would increase the risk for a cancer in another organ. If this woman’s mother and father lived into their 70s or 80s and she had a number of aunts on both sides who never developed breast cancer, it would be less likely to be BRCA1/2. However, P53 also can present in young women and as a de novo mutation. Therefore, we would offer her a panel of actionable genes. Genes that if, in fact, we identified a mutation in one of them, would mean we could do something different for this young lady.
JoAnn Manning, MD. Let’s say she does have testing, and she comes back BRCA+. Then what would be the recommendations or guidance?
Ms. Venne. Women (and men as well!) with mutations have an increased risk for a second primary breast cancer as well as cancer in other organs. Focusing first on the breast story and all the media around BRCA1/2 mutations and surgery, this is a woman who may consider a more aggressive surgery, including prophylactic contralateral mastectomy, if she is concerned. She is young, so we also would explore her fertility plans. While her next few months will be filled with breast cancer treatment choices, women with BRCA mutations also are at an increased risk to develop ovarian cancer, so that might be a decision she makes as well. Her health care team may also eventually discuss chemotherapeutic options available specifically to women with mutations.
However, we often see young women who are extremely nervous because there is a sense that if you’re younger, your cancer must be inherited. Part of the pretest counseling is to explore psychosocial issues and help these young ladies understand that, especially if she does not have a family history of cancer and the only indication is her age, then it’s highly likely that we’re not going to find an identifiable mutation. And in that circumstance, she probably could consider a more conservative surgical decision.