Determine Your Cancer Risk With Genetic Counseling

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If you have a family history of cancer, you may be wondering if you’re likely to get a cancer diagnosis yourself someday. Genetic counseling combined with genetic testing can provide your answer. Genetic Counselor, Julie Sawyer, explains the process.

What Happens During Genetic Counseling?

This special type of counseling aims to not only evaluate your risk for cancer; it helps you understand what these risk factors will mean to you and your situation, explains Julie. Genetic counseling begins with a discussion of your family history of cancer. The goal of counseling, combined with testing, is to learn if you are likely to get cancer.

What Can Be Discovered Through Counseling?

Here’s what you may learn through genetic counseling:

  • What influences your risk for developing cancer?
  • What role do your genes play?
  • Through a Risk Assessment, your counselor will use calculations to help determine if your chances of developing certain cancers are increased based on your family history.
  • Which cancers you may be more likely to get, and which cancers you aren’t likely to get.

Genetic testing (or DNA testing) may be recommended. It involves taking a small sample of your blood, saliva, skin cells, or cells inside your cheek. The results, which can take several weeks to come back, can pinpoint your increased risk for cancers. Before such testing takes place, your counselor will review any potential risks and explain systems that are in place to protect your genetic information.

Your genetic counselor will review the results of your genetic testing with you and discuss any potential impact to you and your family members.

Is the Information Accurate? How Is It Used?

“Genetic testing for hereditary risk mutations is very accurate,” Julie explains. “It is a medical grade test that is considered diagnostic.” She adds, however, that the information is constantly changing and evolving. “As we learn about more genes and how they influence a person’s risk for cancer, additional testing and, in some cases, updated interpretation of test results may be offered.” Such testing is much more detailed and comprehensive than information you can obtain from advertised testing for ancestry and other common hereditary traits.

Julie explains that the information obtained through genetic testing will help your counselor guide you regarding your risk. The information also will be helpful for your family members as it may signal their risk, or their need for testing.

“If you do develop cancer, the information will help your provider determine your best course of treatment,” says Julie.

Why Would I Be Referred To a Genetic Counselor?

Julie describes these circumstances which may cause you to be referred for counseling:

  1. If you have cancer and your doctor thinks the information could be helpful in determining the best treatment. This may be particularly true if you are young, if the cancer is rare, or if you have a strong family history of related cancers.
  2. If you have a family history of cancer and what to know your risk for developing the cancer.
  3. If you have a family member who is known to have a genetic mutation which has increased their risk for cancer, and you want to know if you have the same risk.

Are There Risks Associated With Genetic Counseling?

“Genetic counseling is an education process,” says Julie. “It helps you learn about your risk for developing cancer. It’s never required, but is available if you have a desire for the information it can provide you.” Some individuals choose not to be tested, she says. “They don’t want to know their risks, and that’s fine.”

Before any testing is done, Julie says “we discuss if the testing is appropriate for you, and if your insurance is likely to pay for it. We also review any areas of possible concern such as genetic discrimination and your legal protection under the law.” 

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