What Might Your Breasts and Your Pancreas Have in Common?

Did you know that some of the genetic mutations which cause breast cancer have also been identified as playing a role in inherited pancreas cancer? As we move from October, which is breast cancer awareness month, to November, which is pancreatic cancer awareness month, let’s look at some of the genetic mutations involved in ‘familial pancreatic cancer’ and ‘familial  breast cancer’. 

breast cancer
October is breast cancer awareness month. Some of the BC genetic mutations are implicated in famlial pancreas cancer

What is Familial Pancreatic Cancer? 

Familial pancreatic cancer refers to clusters of pancreas cancer that crop up in a biologically-related family. Typically this means two or more cases of cancer occurring among first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, or children) or three or more cases in the same biological side of the family. This could include grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.

Scientists currently believe that only about 10% of pancreatic cancer cases are inherited. When people think about cancer that ‘runs in the family’, they are referring to what is called a ‘germline’ mutation. Germline mutations are passed down from parents to their offspring. However, just because someone has a specific germline mutation, it does not mean they will develop the disease. It simply means that person has a higher risk for developing the illness than someone without the mutation.

Genetic Mutations in Breast Cancer…and Pancreatic Cancer

The genetic mutations most commonly associated with inherited breast cancer have also been identified as a cause of some cases of pancreatic cancer. These mutations are known as the BRCA and BRCA2 mutations. While the BRCA mutation slightly elevates the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, the BRCA2 genetic mutation has been more strongly associated with developing the disease. 

While carrying one of these genetic mutations can increase the odds of developing certain cancers, the positive news is that some of the drugs which have been developed to target breast or ovarian cancer may also be helpful in cases of pancreatic cancer where the BRCA and/or BRCA2 mutations are present.

Certain populations may be more at risk for carrying these particular mutations. In fact, Ashkenazi Jews have a one in 40 chance of carrying either the BRAC or BRAC2 genetic mutations. Due to these genetic mutations, in part, the rate of pancreatic cancer in the Ashkenazi Jewish population is higher than that of the general population.

Other Genetic Mutations Breast & Pancreatic Cancer Share

The second gene most often implicated in the development of familial pancreatic cancer is the PALB2 mutation. This mutation is also frequently associated with breast cancer. Scientists have also discovered a link between ATM mutations and breast and pancreatic cancers. There are other genetic mutations which are linked to both cancers, although less frequently. More genetic links to these cancers will likely be found in the future. 

pancreas cancer project purple
November is pancreatic cancer awareness month! Project Purple funds scientific research in hopes of eliminating pancreatic cancer in the future!

Assessing Your Own Risk

If you have a familial history of breast or pancreatic cancer, discuss any concerns you have with your physician. You may want to speak with a genetic counselor to discuss your relative risk of developing cancer. A genetic counselor can look at your family history and help you make decisions about possible genetic testing. (To find a genetic counselor, click HERE) There are also a number of clinics at hospitals around the country which can help screen and monitor those who are at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer. 

The Future of Familial Pancreas Cancers

Scientists are working hard to unravel the mysteries of pancreas, breast and other cancers. As they learn more about the genetics of these diseases, they will be able to create better targeted treatments for these cases of inherited pancreatic cancer. Perhaps they will even be able to prevent some cases from developing in the first place!

To make a one time or recurring donation to Project Purple to help fund pancreatic cancer research, click HERE

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