genetic cancer risk

Cracking the code: What to know about genetic cancer risk

A screening panel that determines your genetic risk for cancer can be a powerful tool that shapes your health care planning.

There are many factors that can increase your cancer risk. Some are straightforward — cigarette smoking increases the likelihood of lung cancer, for instance. Others are more complex. Genetic testing may sound complicated, but it’s a valuable scientific tool that can guide your health care decisions in response to any cancer risk.
Why get genetic testing?
“Your cancer risk can be increased by genetic mutations passed down through your family tree; think of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations associated with breast cancers and ovarian cancers,” said Wade Smith, M.D., a medical oncologist and breast cancer specialist at City of Hope | Newport Beach. “You inherit one copy of your genes from your mother, the other from your father. If there are cancer-causing mutations on either side, there’s a chance the mutation has been passed down to you. Simply put, when you have a more accurate picture of your genetics, you have a more accurate picture of your cancer risk.”
You may be a good candidate for genetic testing if your family has a history of cancer through multiple generations, cancer affects first-degree relatives, or if a particular type of cancer occurs on one side of your family (for example, your mom, her sister and their aunt all had colon cancer). A genetic counselor can explain the guidelines for cancer risk testing to determine if it’s right for you.
If you believe you may have a hereditary risk for cancer, compile a family health history listing your relatives who had cancer, the type of cancer they had and their age at diagnosis. This will help your genetic counselor prepare for your appointment.
How does genetic testing work?
You’ll meet with a City of Hope genetic counselor before any testing begins. They can review your family history, discuss your reasons for seeking genetic testing and answer any questions. They’ll also discuss the psychological ramifications of testing to make sure you are ready for a potential positive result. Testing is often covered by health insurance, but you may want to check with your provider on your individual coverage. City of Hope can also work with your insurance company to advocate for you, if needed.
The test itself is brief; you just have your blood drawn, no fasting required. The results will come back after a few weeks and they will be analyzed by your genetic counselor. You’ll have a follow-up appointment where the counselor will go over the results with you.
What do the results mean?
A positive result means you have a genetic mutation. It does not mean, however, that you have cancer or that you will definitely get cancer in the future. It does indicate that you have an increased risk. While 5-10% of all cancer cases have a genetic cause, your cancer risk may also increase if you have a mutation combined with other nonhereditary factors.
“This information allows you to be proactive,” Smith said. “If you have a BRCA1 mutation, for instance, you can talk with your physician about pursuing a screening strategy that accommodates your higher risk. You may also decide to adopt lifestyle changes that prevent other risk factors, whether that’s maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise or quitting cigarettes.”
You’re not the only one who benefits from genetic testing. If you have a positive mutation, you can let your immediate relatives know in case they want to be tested, too. And if you get a negative test result? Then you, and your family, can have greater peace of mind.
City of Hope | Newport Beach offers access to a comprehensive cancer risk assessment focused on family history and genetics, the City of Hope Cancer Screening & Prevention Program. The program helps patients understand more about their personal cancer risks and steps they can take to lower those risks. To learn more, call City of Hope | Newport Beach at (949) 763-2204 or request an appointment with one of our highly specialized cancer physicians.