You've had a loved one diagnosed with cancer and have heard it often runs in families. Perhaps you want to be prepared for the possibility or perhaps you're just curious what your chances are. Via Christi Cancer Outreach and Risk Assessment offers screening, counseling, navigation and genetic testing services for those who want to be proactive about their future health.
How your genes are related to cancer
Genes can indicate likelihood of developing disease. Genetic testing can help discover mutations that may be related to cancer.
Gene mutations can happen due to external causes (such as harmful levels of sunlight or tobacco), but can also happen at random inside a cell. Some of these mutations cause uncontrollable cell growth, which can then lead to cancer.
Inherited mutations and genetic testing
Statistically, 5-10% of all cancers are related to an inherited mutation. Science has identified the gene mutations that are associated with many known hereditary cancer syndromes. Predictive gene testing can use this information in a couple of ways:
- To discover whether an existing health condition is related to an inherited mutation. This could lead to more targeted treatment and an improved prognosis.
- To discover whether a family member without a diagnosed illness carries the same cancer-related mutation as another family member who is known to have it.
There is currently no risk related to undergoing high-risk screening, genetic counseling or testing. However, the potential benefits of early discovery of high-risk status are significant.
Considering genetic testing
If multiple immediate family members have had cancer — particularly if it's the same kind of cancer — you are likely a good candidate. Or, if your family history includes several cancers (breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, color cancer and more) that are known to be linked to a mutation in one specific gene, like BRCA, you may consider testing.
Other reasons may include:
- A family member whose cancer develops at an age younger than it normally occurs
- Extended family members with rare cancers linked to an inherited gene mutation
- Polyps or other physical signs linked to hereditary cancers
- Discovery of a gene mutation in a family member who has already undergone testing
When considering risk-screening and testing, think about the emotions that might come up during and after the process. Waiting on and hearing the results could create fear and anxiety for you, or other family members who worry about their own well-being. Discovering an inherited mutation could create guilt or anger in the parent who passed it on or the child who received it. You may even have to deal with sensitive family subjects as a result — paternity, adoptions or other issues.
Beginning your risk assessment
If you're considering the possibility of genetic testing, the specialists at Via Christi Cancer Outreach and Risk Assessment are here to answer your questions. Your assessment can be initiated through a doctor or mid-level provider's recommendation, or of your own volition.
The first step is to complete a pre-screening questionnaire. This can be done online, or over the phone with a Via Christi Health Connection representative. This pre-screening will explore:
- Why you want genetic testing
- Your family history of cancer
- Your own medical history, including preventive measures currently being taken
- Related cultural attitudes or beliefs
- Other related lifestyle factors
If you are identified as potentially high risk, you'll meet with a Via Christi clinical nurse specialist, who is certified in oncology and has specialized training in cancer risk assessment and genetics. This nurse specialist is tasked with discussing everything you need to know to make an informed decision about genetic testing:
- Background information on genes, mutations and heredity
- How useful the testing may be to your situation
- The types of testing options available and how they work
- What to expect during testing
- The possible test results you may receive and what they mean for your future health
- The emotional impact of testing on you and your family
- Costs involved and whether or not your insurance will cover it
- Legal issues related to genetic testing and your rights therein
Choosing to have genetic testing
Regardless of whether you are exploring genetic testing on your own or you were referred by a healthcare provider, you still have the final say in whether or not you undergo testing. If you choose testing, you'll be required to sign an informed consent form.
At Via Christi Cancer Outreach and Risk Assessment, lab testing will use samples of blood or cheek cells. Results may not be available for several weeks after your sample is drawn. Your results will be sent to the program coordinator to discuss with you, and then forwarded to your primary care physician.
Throughout the entire process, we will work with your physician to ensure they are apprised of all gathered information and receive recommendations based on your results.
Life after your results
If your tests show an increased risk for cancer, your doctor or nurse specialist may recommend several different possibilities: Lifestyle changes, risk-lowering medications or even preventive surgery. In discussing a plan of action with your care provider, be sure that you understand how each approach will affect your long-term health.