Genetic testing helps mom make tough choices on cancer risk

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Sep 16 2013 05:15:00 PM HST

Of all the things people try to predict, predicting cancer might come with the highest stakes.

HONOLULU -

At only 33 years old, Hermelita Olipares' brother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

"It was scary.  The first thing that was going through my mind was, 'How are we going to deal with this?' What if I have it?" said Olipares.

Barely over 30 herself and terrified, she turned to her husband and three boys to find strength.

"My husband just told me just think about our kids, do what's best and I'm going to be there for you all the way," said Olipares.

Allison Taylor Shykowski, a genetic counselor at the Queen's Medical Center, says genetic testing proved Olipares indeed had a mutation in the gene most commonly associated with breast cancer called BRCA.  In addition, she has a family tree confirming the patterns of high-risk patients:  a clustering of cancer cases in relatives, more than one cancer, cancer at an earlier age and cancer in men.

Olipares says her brother's cancer spread to his bones, to his brain before he died three days after our interview.

"It made me realize I would rather be there for my  kids than suffer the way my brother suffered," said Olipares.

With an 85 percent chance of getting cancer, Olipares decided to take control.  This year, she is having a preventative mastectomy.  Next year, she will have a hysterectomy.  Those are extreme measures through an educated choice for a mom looking forward to a long life.

Up to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are based on heredity.  A mutation in that BRCA gene means a significantly higher risk of a first and second bout with breast cancer as well as ovarian cancer.

In addition to genetic testing, researchers are working on testing entire panels of genes to catch more mutations and lower the costs for testing.

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