July 31, 2017
AnneMarie Ciccarella, a fast-talking 57-year-old brunette with a more than a hint of a New York accent, thought she knew a lot about breast cancer. Her mother was diagnosed with the disease in 1987, and several other female relatives also developed it. When doctors found a suspicious lump in one of her breasts that turned out to be cancer, she immediately sought out testing to look for mutations in the two BRCA genes, which between them account for around 20 per cent of families with a strong history of breast cancer.
Ciccarella assumed her results would be positive. They weren’t. Instead, they identified only what’s known as a variant of unknown or uncertain significance (VUS) in both BRCA1 and BRCA2. Unlike pathogenic mutations that are known to cause disease or benign ones that don’t, these genetic variations just aren’t understood enough to know if they are involved or not.
“I thought you could have a mutated gene or not, and with all the cancer in my family, I believed I would carry a mutation. I didn’t know there was this huge third category,” she says. “I got no information – it felt like a huge waste of blood to get a giant question mark.”
Thousands of people have had their BRCA genes tested for increased genetic susceptibility to breast, ovarian, prostate and other cancers. About 5% have learned that they carry a VUS. That number is even higher for other genes: in one study, almost 20% of genetic tests returned a VUS result.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.