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Why genetic counseling — and not just genetic testing — is important

genetic counseling and testing

While genetic testing for cancer risk assessment is becoming more and more prevalent, counseling prior to testing is only occurring in approximately 37 percent of cases according to a recent study in The ASCO Post, a publication affiliated with the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Genetic testing is far from providing concrete answers; therefore, it’s imperative to have the appropriate counseling and education prior to undergoing genetic testing. 

Why is counseling so important?

  • Individuals must understand the implications of a positive results such as the possibility for additional screenings or surgical procedures to prevent the occurrence of cancer, i.e. bilateral mastectomy or total hysterectomy.
  • With the finding of more genetic mutations related to increasing cancer risk, we may uncover a genetic mutation that we were not expecting. For instance, in a family history strong in breast cancer, if we identify a CDH1 mutation, the national recommendation is for a total gastrectomy, which means surgical removal of all or part of the stomach. If you aren’t prepared for the unexpected possibilities, then this can come as an extra blow.
  • Even with negative results, it does not mean you are truly negative. It could mean that the right genes were not tested or we have not yet identified all the genes to test for.

So much has changed in genetic testing even over the last few years. For breast cancer, we were commonly only testing for BRCA 1 and 2 mutations, now there are a handful more of genes related to increasing an individual’s risk for cancer.

It’s important, when considering genetic testing, to first talk to your physician about your concerns. Then, if there is an interest in pursuing testing, talk to a genetic practitioner — a healthcare professional with specialized training in genetics.

Learn about the Via Christi Cancer Outreach and Risk Assessment program

About Maggie Ward

Maggie Ward is an oncology nurse navigator with the Via Christi Cancer Institute.