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Oncologist, oncology social worker, speak on family being diagnosed with breast cancer

By Max

It can be devastating to learn of a diagnosis of breast cancer, but what does it mean for your health if it happens to a member of the family?

Asma Latif, M.D., Director of Breast Oncology at Sturdy Memorial Hospital, said that upon getting this news, it’s best for the person to notify their Primary Care Physician, since they’ll have a good understanding of your medical history and can recommend next steps. In addition to discussing the risk factor, the PCP can also speak on lifestyle changes that can reduce the possibility of developing cancer.

Latif said that in assessing what a breast cancer diagnosis means for other family members, a multi-disciplinary approach is used, including social workers. Susan Therien, LSW, MBA, an Oncology Social Worker at Sturdy Memorial, sees every new patient and reviews past cases where a family member has had cancer. She said that in these situations, the team tries provide as much emotional support as possible.

“There’s a lot of fear that’s involved,” Therien said. “We try to maintain a positive outlook and get them through their treatment.”

Latif said that she and Therien work together on a number of cases and work with patients on any obstacles that come up, whether these are emotional or financial.

“That can make it harder for them to receive the appropriate screening and care that they need,” said Latif.

When meeting a relative of a breast cancer patient, a number of factors are looked at to determine the risk to others, including how closely the two are related and if there is a larger history of cancer in the family. Other elements looked include age and menstrual and gynecological history. Latif said that the familial connection can increase or decrease the possibility of a cancer diagnosis. The possibility of children, aunts, or parents getting breast cancer would be higher than say, a second cousin.

‘It may indicate to the provider that this is considered a significant family history and we need to look at the individual more closely,” said Latif.

The possibility of women developing breast cancer is 12 percent and it’s recommended they begin getting mammograms every one to two years beginning at the age of 40-45. The testing frequency can be changed, however, if a close family member is diagnosed.

In addition to mammograms, doctors may recommend an MRI or ultrasound to provide better insight, though Latif said patients are told of the cost, as well as the possibility for different tests giving a false positive.

“We make sure that patients understand the limitations of the test,” she said.

Advancements in medical science mean that oncologists have access to a wider array of tools. Computer programs such as the National Institutes of Health’s Gail Model and the National Cancer Institute’s Tyrer-Cuzick examine different issues to determine the possibility a patient may develop breast cancer. While neither are 100% accurate, Latif said that both have proven very helpful.

Checking someone for a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation is another part of the screening process. Latif said that in families where this mutation is present, breast cancer and other types can appear down the family line. Checking for this can be a lifesaving discovery, said Latif.

“A lot of interventions can be taken,” she said.

Genetic testing is considered for all cancer patients, especially if someone else in the family has a BRCA mutation. Latif said the process used to be difficult but in recent years it’s become more effective and easier to access. Commercial tests are available, but a provider should always be consulted to review the results.

“Not everybody’s prepared for that information and it can be difficult to cope with that,” said Latif. “You need to be prepared with everything that may come with that genetic testing.”

In the end, however, the best way to respond to a family member being diagnosed with breast cancer is to offer your support, said Therien. Knowing just what to say is challenging, but the worst thing to do is nothing.

“It’s a difficult, emotional time, they’re worried about so many different areas in life. Who do they talk to, it’s really important,” she said. “Open up the conversation and take cues from the patient in terms of what they want talk about. Make sure they understand that you’re here for them, whatever they need.”

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