Humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes in their bodies. Genes, inherited from each parent, are what makes everyone different from one another. Our genetic makeup also plays a role in reproduction, what we pass along to our offspring, and our health generally. A common gene discussed that impacts our health is the BRCA gene. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let’s take a look at the BRCA gene and what that means for fertility and pregnancy.
What is the BRCA gene?
The BRCA gene, or breast cancer gene, is a gene that every human carries and impacts the chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. This gene is made up of two different genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes actually work to prevent cancer by suppressing the growth of tumors and repairing DNA breaks that can lead to cancer.
When the BRCA gene is mutated, however, it cannot effectively repair the DNA that causes breast and ovarian cancer. This means that people with a BRCA gene mutation are likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer at some point in their life. 55-65% of people with a BRCA1 mutation and 45% of people with the BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer before the age of 70. Mutations in either BRCA gene leaves a 20-45% risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, it’s worth noting that most people who have breast or ovarian cancer don’t carry the BRCA gene mutation.
Additionally, there is a 50% possibility that someone with a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will pass it down to his or her offspring. This is the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer. If your family has a history of breast or ovarian cancer, especially before age 45, doctors recommend a blood test to test for a mutation in the BRCA gene.
How does the BRCA gene affect my fertility?
Research on BRCA gene mutations and fertility shows mixed results, but there is no clear evidence that the BRCA gene mutations contribute to infertility. While biologists have predicted that BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations would be associated with female infertility, many studies have shown little or no evidence that this is the case. In fact, in an analysis of people with natural fertility conditions, BRCA mutation carriers were actually more fertile.
The research that shows a link to infertility and a BRCA mutation is likely due to cancer itself, not the actual gene. As we stated, mutations in the BRCA gene increases your risk for cancer but doesn’t guarantee it. Any type of cancer treatment leads to a higher chance of losing fertility, so if you test positive for a BRCA mutation, talk to your primary care provider about your options and what it means for your fertility.
Can I still get pregnant with the BRCA gene?
Testing positive for a mutation in the BRCA gene doesn’t guarantee you’ll be diagnosed with cancer, but it increases the chances. Without being diagnosed with cancer, the BRCA gene mutation shouldn’t affect your pregnancy journey. This being said, it has been found that pregnancy among those with a BRCA mutation increases their chances of getting cancer even more, but by an insignificant amount.
With the increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, those who test positive for the BRCA mutation should consider speaking with their primary care provider about fertility preservation. Many people with the BRCA gene mutation freeze their eggs just in case they are diagnosed when they are older before they have children. Many people with the mutation choose to remove their ovaries and fallopian tubes to ensure they never get ovarian cancer and limit the chance of getting breast cancer. This makes getting pregnant naturally impossible. Luckily there are many infertility treatments like In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and IUI designed to help people dealing with infertility increase their chances of pregnancy.
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