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Macon area to be site for breast cancer genetic study

Macon’s public health district will be among the first in the state to test a new screening process for identifying and advising women who have a hereditary tendency to develop breast cancer.

The program will be funded through a $900,000, three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia is one of just three states receiving the grant, which targets women ages 18 to 49 who have an abnormal gene that puts them at higher risk for breast cancer.

An expensive test is available to check for the genetic abnormality, but there is not a good understanding of risk factors that indicate the test is necessary, said Kimberly Redding, director of health promotion and disease prevention program with the state’s public health department. If a better process is developed for screening women to determine who really needs the test, perhaps more insurance companies would pay for it, she said.

“One of the main goals is to come up with a process for identifying these women, referring them for genetic counseling, deciding when testing is appropriate and making recommendations for follow-up,” said Redding.

She said women who have the gene may be more likely to consider preventive options ranging from medication to more frequent screening.

The Georgia Department of Public Health will partner with the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education on the initiative, which is called the Georgia Breast Cancer Genomics Education, Surveillance and Policy Program. The first phase of the program will focus on public health districts based in Macon, Savannah and DeKalb County, according to the Georgia public health department. Later the program will expand to Augusta, Columbus and other Atlanta-area counties.

The Macon based-district, known as the North Central District, encompasses 13 counties. Besides Bibb County, it comprises the counties of Houston, Peach, Twiggs, Wilkinson, Baldwin, Jones, Monroe, Jasper and Crawford, Putnam, Washington and Hancock

Redding said the project will work primarily through local health departments to provide women and their doctors a broader education about genetic factors in breast cancer. It also will determine the best ways to use a screening tool developed by Emory University. Among other factors, screening questions look at a women’s personal and family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer.

The health districts were chosen partly in an effort to address economic and racial disparities in intervention and treatment, Redding said.

For example, black women are more likely to develop early breast cancer, although it’s unknown whether they are more likely to carry the abnormal genes that can cause it. They are also less likely to undergo appropriate screening and receive genetic counseling, Redding said.

“That’s a population it’s important for us to screen,” she said. “So we’re working in districts with high populations of African-American women.”

Women with no health insurance, inadequate health insurance and women in rural areas also are less likely to be screened or to find the resources they need for genetic counseling, Redding said. The health districts involved in the project also serve rural counties, which will be included.

Georgia women are more likely to be affected with breast cancer than any other type of cancer, and it is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women in the state, Redding said.

Georgia CORE will pursue funding to continue the public education effort and promote the screening protocol after the CDC funding ends, Redding said. The next stop might be assessing what testing insurance companies are currently covering in Georgia and working to ensure that coverage is appropriate, she said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.