KSNT News Special Report: Facing Risk: Cancer Testing

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – It’s the news no woman ever wants to hear.

"You have breast cancer."

Yet 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life.

"I'm concerned about the women who we could have saved their lives."

That was from Doctor Michael Hurwitz, KSNT News interviewed him seven months ago. The same day the American Cancer Society released new guidelines saying all women should start getting mammograms at 45 instead of 40.

Then 3 months later, another recommendation. This time from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, claiming mammograms offer the greatest benefit for women starting at age 50.

When you should start screening

In the last few years there's been a lot of confusion on when women should start screening for breast cancer.

"Various organizations set forth guidelines according to what they value, we can make recommendations to what we think is appropriate,” said Adrian Caracioni, St. Francis Cancer Center.

For years, women turning 40 got annual mammograms because it's what the American Cancer Society recommended but, that advice changed. The society now recommends annual mammograms start at age 45, with the option to start them at age 40 if they want, at age 55, women can get them every other year.

"I worry about the women that now are like, ‘oh I don't have time to do that until I’m 45' because that is 5 years that something could be growing," said cancer survivor Nessa Johnson.

Despite many being outraged with the society's new guidelines, just a few months later, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended women start mammogram at 50, with screenings every other year.


What doctors recommend

KSNT News asked local doctors what they would tell their own wife, daughter, or grandmother.

"I don't think we've harmed the American public by doing mammograms at 40,” said Michael Hurwitz, St. Francis Cancer Center.

"I personally recommend starting at age 40," said Adrian Caracioni.

As for follow up mammograms, early detection, and vigilance is key. Both doctors agree, once a woman starts getting mammograms, she needs to get them every year from then on.

Not just women

For any men reading, don't think this doesn't affect you. Take a listen to how one man reacted when he found out he had breast cancer.

Robert Tharp found out he had breast cancer right after one of his daughter had been diagnosed.

"It does make you feel a little strange you know, you think golly, can't I get a guy disease, but this is no respecter of sex,"

The entire family tested for the BRCA gene and all tested positive. That led to a second daughter who had never been diagnosed with breast cancer to practically eliminate her chance of ever getting it.


Genetic testing

Another alternative for women younger than 40 can do is genetic testing. All a person has to do is give a blood or spit sample to be tested. It became extremely popular after actress Angelina Jolie announced she tested positive for the BRCA gene, which essentially tells a women she is now at risk of developing breast, or ovarian cancer.

"The risk can be anywhere between 60-80% for breast cancer, and also ovarian cancer, 15-40% lifetime risk, which is very high,” said Caracioni.

Jolie chose to undergo a double mastectomy and removed her ovaries and fallopian tubes, practically eliminating her chance of ever being diagnosed.


So why don't all women do this?

"If we tested every women over the age 30, that's a huge undertaking,” said Dr. Jennifer Klemp, director of the Breast Cancer Survivorship Program at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.


One test alone can cost as much as $7,000, and may or may not be covered, depending on your insurance and women have to qualify first.

"Right now we try to find those at highest risk for genetic mutation."

Given her family’s history of breast cancer, KSNT News’ Brooke Lennington assumed she would be a shoe in for the test. Her dad’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at 60-years-old and passed away a few years later. Her mom’s sister had breast cancer twice, first diagnosed at 45-years-old, and is still a survivor today, 5 years later. What she found out was that if a family member who had cancer is still alive to have them get tested. Her aunt did and she was negative, which means the odds of the BRCA gene running in her family, on her mom's side are low.  Since, Brooke's grandma on her dad's side was the only family member known to have breast cancer, she didn't have enough family history to qualify for the testing.

"Maybe there is not a pre-disposition, but there is still risk,” said Dr. Klemp. So even for what I call, "Average Jane," she still may have some additional risks, so it's still worth talking to her medical provider, or genetic expert if she's concerned about that risk.”

BRCA testing gives women one more avenue to explore until there is a cure for cancer though.

"All of us are at risk for breast cancer, because we are women.”

And it’s up to each individual woman when she wants to start getting checked, not newly released guidelines or recommendations.


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