Did you know that the answer to more effective cancer treatment – and prevention – might be found in your genes? Ten percent of cancers are hereditary, which means understanding your family history and genetics can help identify your potential for cancer sooner and lower your risk.
Unsure if cancer runs in your family? There are online tools that you can use to organize and record your family’s health history, as well as your own. You should share this information with your primary care provider, who may refer you to a genetic counselor for further review.
A genetic counselor will look for patterns in your personal and family health history. For example, did multiple women on one side of your family have breast cancer? Once patterns are established, a genetic counselor can determine if you may have an increased risk for a hereditary cancer and if genetic testing is an appropriate next step.
Your genetic counselor can help identify the most appropriate test(s) for you as well as the best laboratory based on your personal and family health history and health insurance. The testing itself is straightforward – in most cases it only requires a blood draw or saliva sample, which is sent to a laboratory for evaluation.
A positive result indicates an abnormality or mutation within a gene. This tells your doctor that you’re at a greater than average risk for cancer. One thing to keep in mind is that a negative result doesn’t necessarily rule out an increased risk for cancer. Genetic testing is only able to evaluate specific genes at this point and doesn’t take into account risk factors that may come into play with each patient.
If you have a positive result, your doctor might order preventive screenings, increase their frequency or begin them earlier than standard recommendations. You might also be a candidate for preventive therapies or surgery to reduce your risk of getting cancer. For example, a woman with a high risk of breast cancer may opt to undergo a preventive mastectomy.
The results can be used for more than prevention. Genetic testing is also having an impact on how cancer is treated. Knowing the gene mutation can have a positive influence on your treatment plan by allowing your medical team to determine the best course of action and, in some cases, utilize new drugs that are designed to treat cancer caused by a specific mutation. There are more treatments in development that will tailor and individualize cancer treatment based on specific genetic mutations.
Although genetic and ancestry tests can be purchased online and in stores, genetic testing is best done at a medical facility. That’s because off-the-shelf tests do not look for gene mutations and aren’t able to accurately assess if you have an increased risk for cancer.