Genetic testing emphasized during men's health month

Nov. 22—MANKATO — A gene mutation associated with breast cancer isn't only a concern for women, but studies show men are less likely to test for it.

BRCA gene mutations, found in about 1 in 500 women, increase the risks of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer by age 70.

The mutation is just as common in men, though. And while breast cancer is rare in men, the mutation is also linked to higher incidences of prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer.

Understanding genetic health risks could help men detect these cancers earlier, said Michael Potts, a genetic counselor at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.

"We want people to be healthy, and knowing if you have one of these genetic changes can help you screen earlier, catch it earlier," he said.

Genetic testing uses blood or saliva samples to look for mutations in a person's DNA. Genetic counselors can help people decide if they should seek genetic testing.

"What we do is walk them through the process," Potts said. "We look at family history, make sure they have the full awareness of what goes into the test and what results could come up so they're not surprised."

Once the test comes back, counselors could analyze the results. Expectant mothers may learn about genetic factors to be aware of during pregnancy. Men may decide to seek medical screenings more often.

Beyond their own health, men likely have other motivations to be proactive, Potts said.

"Maybe the information isn't of interest to them, but it might be of interest to their kids or siblings," he said.

Fathers pass down the BRCA mutation to their children at the same rate as mothers. The chance of a daughter or son getting it from a parent who has it is 50-50.

Men who have a family history of pancreatic, prostate, breast or ovarian cancers are good candidates for BRCA mutation testing and counseling.

Medical experts are using November, men's health awareness month, to emphasize the importance of screenings, as genetic testing and counseling is much like other health screenings in having less uptake among men.

A 2017 study on Malaysian men, published in the British Medical Journal, found "low risk perception" was one of the reasons why men don't seek health screenings as often. The results aligned with what a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of Orlando Health found in June.

About 33% of male respondents didn't think they needed yearly health screenings, while most male respondents, 65%, also believed they were naturally healthier than others.

As a family medicine doctor at Orlando Health pointed out afterward, it's statistically impossible for the majority of men to be healthier than the majority of men.

In genetic testing's case, men also may just be unaware of it being available. The early focus on genetic susceptibility testing in the 1990s centered on its application to breast cancers, a disease mainly impacting women.

Testing has since expanded to other genes, and counseling has expanded to other disease risks.

Potts recommended the Facing Hereditary Cancer Empowered website as a resource for people interested in genetic testing. Go to for more information.

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