You have inherited your eye and hair color, nose, facial features, and other physical characteristics from your parents and their ancestors. You may have also inherited an increased risk of developing certain cancers and other diseases. Genetic testing can be used by some people to better understand their risk of developing certain cancers.
Based on your personal history and your family's history of cancer, genetic testing may be recommended by your oncologist or a family member’s doctor. Before genetic testing is done, you may meet with a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors are healthcare professionals who help identify patterns that exist within a family as well as assess other factors that are known to be related to hereditary cancers.
During an appointment with the genetic counselor, you will be asked a lot of questions about your history and your family's medical history. Based on what you share, genetic testing may be recommended. The tests will look for inherited genetic mutations that put you or your family members who also have the mutation at a higher risk of developing certain cancers.
At Willamette Valley, we are able to offer visits with a cancer genetic counselor via a telehealth session. We call this telegentics.
Most cancers have no known single cause. However, about 5-10% of cancers develop because of an inherited genetic mutation.
Many discoveries over the decades led to today’s genetic testing. The development of the first human genetic map in 1987 helped scientists locate genes responsible for diseases, for example. Genetic specialists now use sophisticated technology to perform genetic tests.
The actual tests are typically simple blood tests but could also include a saliva test.
You inherit your genes from your parents. You get half of your genes from your mother and the other half from your father. Most of your genes are healthy, of course, but you can inherit genetic mutations that can lead to diseases that “run in the family,” passed from one generation to the next. Changes to certain genes can garble the instruction to prevent the cells from functioning properly.
While you can also develop your own gene mutations over the course of your lifetime that can cause cancer, those are less predictable than assessing someone for a known mutation that is passed down through generations.
The National Cancer Institute lists more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes, which are genetic disorders that could make a person more prone to developing some cancers. Fortunately, not every person needs to be tested for every condition – a genetic counselor can recommend specific genetic tests depending on your family history.
Your genetic counselor might suggest genetic testing for breast cancer if it runs in your family. BRCA1, BRCA2, and PALB2 are three genes that can mutate to raise the risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer. Women who inherit an abnormal change in any of these genes have a much higher than average risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. Men with mutations in these genes have an increased risk of breast cancer and possibly of prostate cancer. This is especially true if the mutation affects the BRCA2 gene.
Scientists have also identified several syndromes and diseases associated with specific inherited mutations. The Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) syndrome caused by mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, for example. Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC), or Lynch syndrome, is an inherited condition that can lead to colon cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer.
Like other telehealth appointments, the genetic counselors can communicate with patients through computers. This is more convenient for patients in the Willamette Valley area since we can be rather spread out. Based on your answers to the questions, the genetic counselor will let you know if you should be tested for genetic mutations.
Following the lab tests, you’ll schedule another telegenetics appointment to review the results.
If the genetic testing results show that you have an inherited gene mutation that makes you more likely to develop cancer, your doctor may recommend more frequent cancer screenings or other screening tests that most people don’t need. This helps detect the condition sooner, which means there typically is a better outcome.
The information provided by genetic screening can provide you with information that can help you make future decisions about screening and other preventive actions. It's also information that your family members may want to have. Always ask them before sharing your results, as not everyone feels the same about knowing their risk for genetic diseases.