When a parent learns that they carry a genetic risk for an illness, they may not only be concerned for themselves, but also for their children, who may have inherited it from them. A new study, though, finds that children largely handle the news well.
Researchers from Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center recently studied how teens and young adults reacted to learning about their mother’s hereditary risk of breast or ovarian cancer, due to mutated BRCA genes. The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, show that there do not tend to be negative impacts to their lifestyle or quality of life long-term.
Dr. Kenneth Tercyak, the study’s senior author and Georgetown professor in the Departments of Oncology and Pediatrics, says, “Our findings underscore the resilience of children of mothers who are BRCA+, especially those adolescents and young adults who have grown up around cancer in the family and learned how to cope. The study’s findings will help us learn how to build on young people’s cancer awareness and their interest in knowing more about their family’s health history.”
The families involved in the study had mothers who had undergone BRCA genetic testing between one and five years prior and whose children were between the the ages of 12 and 24. The mothers had also received genetic counseling and testing at regional cancer centers, with 17% BRCA+ and 76% ovarian or breast cancer survivors.
When the team studied the children’s lifestyle behaviors, particularly detrimental ones, they found that there was not much of a difference between those with a BRCA+ mother and those without. All of the participants had similar rates of tobacco and alcohol use, lack of physical activity, and emotional distress about cancer.
There were some differences found, though. For those whose mothers had survived cancer, they felt they had a higher risk themselves and were more knowledgable about cancer than participants whose mothers had not had cancer. Children of BRCA+ mothers, meanwhile, were the most concerned about their mothers developing the disease and were more passionate about knowing one’s genetic risk factors.
The team says that a family’s reaction to such news can be impacted by speaking with knowledgable parties to understand the situation.
Beth Peshkin, study co-author and professor of oncology at Georgetown, explains, “There is a lot of complexity in how parents talk with their kids about familial cancer risk in ways that are truthful but nonthreatening. These families benefitted from support from their genetic counselors and other health professionals. One of the goals of this counseling strategy is to foster open and individualized conversations with relatives about cancer risk, screening and risk reduction, and genetic testing choices.”
If you’re interested in undergoing genetic counseling, contact your doctor.