December 22, 2015 | by Valerie Howard
Young women can feel as if they’re invincible, with no need to worry about something as remote as cancer – and certainly no need to worry about how their family members’ health might affect their own. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially for women of Hispanic and African-American descent. Women of those ethnic backgrounds are more likely than other women to die from cancer.
Argelia Villalvazo was 39 years old when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Two female relatives had had breast cancer, but she never gave much thought to her own risk. After her diagnosis, however, genetic testing done at City of Hope revealed that she had a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that increases the risk of breast cancer by at least 50 percent, and ovarian cancer by 39 percent. The mutation is detectable with a simple blood test, well before cancer develops.
“I was lucky to find my cancer at Stage 2, which was still early enough to treat,” Argelia said. “But if I had known about my genetic abnormality, I might have been able catch it even sooner. Now that I have this information, I am sharing it with everyone I can.”
As with all cancers, early detection is critical for increasing the odds of survival. Paying attention to family history is the first step toward that early detection.
A range of factors — from ethnicity to a close family member’s diagnosis with cancer — may suggest that genetic testing is warranted. This information on genetic risk can guide women and their doctors to make better-informed decisions about screening schedules, perhaps preventive measures, and if necessary, treatment decisions.
Throughout Argelia’s treatment, the knowledge that she carried BRCA1 helped guide her difficult personal decisions.
“Because my genes also increase my risk of ovarian cancer, I chose to have a hysterectomy,” Argelia said. “I already had all of my kids, so I felt it was the safest decision. Ovarian cancer is often caught late since it is so silent, so for me, the surgery brought some peace of mind.”
With her cancer now in remission, Argelia credits the expert care she received at City of Hope for the early detection and treatment of her disease.
“Early detection is everything,” Argelia said.
To that end, she’s now made it her mission to urge young women with high-risk factors to get tested early, starting with the ones in her family.
“Two out of the four women in my family have had cancer,” Argelia said. She says one member of her family just got tested, and is waiting on the results. “I would like all of the young women in my family to do it. The test is simple and the results could save your life. Why not?”
For more information about genetic screening, research and education, visit the City of Hope's Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics.
For guidelines and additional information about the risk of carrying a BRCA genetic mutation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a free online tool called Know:BRCA.
If you are looking for a second opinion about your breast cancer diagnosis or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.