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April 17, 2007 > Understanding Your Risk for Breast and Ovarian Cancer

Understanding Your Risk for Breast and Ovarian Cancer

Lunch and Learn Presentation Focuses on Genetic Risk Factors

When we visit a doctor's office for the first time the doctor usually asks for us a medical history, including the history of our close family members, such as parents and siblings. Naturally, if a close family member has been diagnosed with a disease, we want to know if there are genetic risk factors that might increase our own chances of developing that same disease.
Genetics can play a role in the development of both breast and ovarian cancer, the second and fifth leading causes of cancer death, respectively, among women in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics.
One in eight women will have breast cancer during her lifetime, and one in 70 will have ovarian cancer. And when considering risk factors for these cancers, one of the most important is family history.
On April 26, Vandana Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., a Washington Hospital Medical Staff medical oncologist, will present a Lunch and Learn session at the Washington Women's Center titled "Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndromes: Understanding Your Risk."
"My talk will focus on how people can think about their hereditary breast and ovarian cancer risk," Dr. Sharma says. "The first major risk factor would be family history. I will be providing information that helps women understand their own breast cancer risk, as well as the genetics of breast and ovarian cancer syndromes."
Dr. Sharma, who earned both her doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and medical degree from the University of Chicago, performed her doctoral research on the estrogen receptor, the protein involved in breast cancer development and treatment. Her research focus, according to Dr. Sharma, stemmed from her passion not only for treating patients battling cancer, but also from her interest in achieving earlier diagnosis and cancer prevention.
The goal of her Lunch and Learn presentation is to benefit both women who have questions about their own family history in relation to their cancer risk, as well as women that simply have an interest in learning more about genetic breast and ovarian syndromes.
"It's well known in the medical literature that there are families in which cancers cluster," Dr. Sharma explains. "There is a small percentage - about 10 percent - of people who have a family history; for instance, their mother, grandmother, aunts, or other close family members had a certain type of cancer. We know based on research that these families - about 60 percent - carry mutations in certain genes that are passed from parent to child."
The presentation is meant to help women - at any age - understand and answer the question of whether or not they are personally at risk for ovarian or breast cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the family characteristics that suggest hereditary breast and ovarian cancer predisposition include the following:
* Cancers occur at an earlier age than in sporadic cases (defined as cases not associated with genetic risk).
* Two or more primary cancers in a single individual. These could be multiple primary cancers of the same type (e.g., bilateral breast cancer) or primary cancer of different types (e.g., breast and ovarian cancer in the same individual).
* Cases of male breast cancer.
* Possible increased risk of other selected cancers and benign features for males and females.
Dr. Sharma defines family history of breast or ovarian cancer as the most significant single risk factor. In addition to talking about risk factors, Dr. Sharma also will discuss proactive steps for those at risk.
"I will talk about treatment and prevention options for women who are identified as high risk," she says. "For someone who is identified as high risk, treatment options include close monitoring using imaging modalities such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), as well as physical exams in the doctor's office and prophylactic surgery involving surgical removal of ovaries or breast tissue, which has been shown as the most effective treatment. Obviously it's a big decision to make."
As a medical oncologist, Dr. Sharma treats people with all types of cancer, but is quick to emphasize that cancer care is a team approach using multi-modality treatment that can include chemotherapy, radiation oncology and surgery.
"I have a personal interest in breast and ovarian cancer," Dr. Sharma explains. "I worked with the Stanford Cancer Genetics Group. My interest is in detection and prevention as well as treatment. My professional life is treating people with cancer, but my personal interest is working on prevention and diagnosis."
Dr. Sharma says most medical oncologists would be happy if they were put out of business; that's why she considers prevention and diagnosis of cancer her passion.
Four Lunch and Learn sessions about breast and ovarian cancer syndromes will be held in the Women's Center Conference Room located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont, across the street from the main hospital. Sessions will be held at 11:15 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. on Thursday, April 26.
To learn more about the Lunch and Learn program at the Washington Women's Center or to suggest topics you would like to learn more about, call the center's coordinator, Kathy Hesser, R.N., at (510) 608-1356.
For more information about other programs and services at the Women's Center, call (866) 608-1301 or (510) 608-1301.

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Know Your Risk

What: Lunch and Learn
Topic: Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndromes and Understanding Your Risk
When: Thursday, April 26: 11:15 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:45 p.m.
Where: Women's Center Conference Room, 2500 Mowry Ave., Fremont
Call: (510) 608-1356 for more information

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