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All cancer has a genetic basis since it is triggered by mutations (changes) in the genes of a cell. These changes cause cells to reproduce in an unstructured, abnormal way.
Genetic changes can have many causes. Most cancers occur by chance (or sporadically). For instance, gene changes may result from a random mistake when cells are dividing. Genes may also change in response to lifestyle habits (e.g., diet, exercise) and/or environment exposures or injuries.
A small portion—about five to 10 percent—of cancers have been identified as resulting from genetic changes that are inherited. Inherited cancers occur when the cancer-causing gene alterations are passed from parent to child.
Individuals with an inherited gene mutation tendency have an increased risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. However, not everyone who is born with a tendency for a gene mutation will develop cancer. Researchers have identified some inherited gene mutations that are known to contribute to the development of certain types of cancer, such as breast, ovarian and colorectal cancers.
With cancer comes many unanswered questions. You may wonder how you got cancer in the first place. You may worry about your risk for cancer recurrence or for developing another type of cancer. You may also wonder about a family member’s risk for developing cancer.
The following are some risk factors for a hereditary cancer predisposition:
Genetic testing is relatively new. It began with the discovery of the BRCA1 gene in 1994, followed by the BRCA2 gene discovery in 1995. Women with a specific mutation of these genes are more likely to develop breast cancer. Genetic testing is now available for some of types of hereditary cancers, including breast, ovarian, and colorectal.
Genetic testing consists of a laboratory blood test. The test will help determine if you inherited a gene mutation that contributed to cancer. Genetic testing also helps determine if you are at greater risk of developing the same cancer again or of developing another type of cancer, or if your family members may have an inherited risk for cancer.
Genetic testing for cancer is not appropriate for everyone. It is typically offered to individuals in high-risk families, with the following features in their family history:
Genetic counselors are specially-trained health professionals who counsel individuals about their genetic risk and the implications of genetic testing.
When you first meet with a genetic counselor, you may take a genetic risk assessment. Your genetic counselor will discuss your personal and/or family history of cancer and help you prepare a family tree (also known as a pedigree). Your family tree lists members of each generation of your biological family, including the type of cancer each relative had and their age at diagnosis. A genetic counselor will then analyze the pattern of cancer in your family.
If you undergo genetic testing, your genetic counselor will support you through the process. They will help simplify complex concepts into terms you can understand, and address your questions and concerns.
Genetic testing can help you make decisions about how to manage your risk for cancer. If it is determined that you are at greater risk for getting cancer again or for getting another cancer, your doctor can give you options to help reduce your risk. For example, if it is determined that you are at risk for breast cancer recurrence, your doctor may recommend adding breast MRIs to your screenings. Genetic testing can also help determine if other, unaffected, family members should be counseled and tested.
Deciding whether or not to undergo genetic testing is a personal choice. It is important to consider the benefits and drawbacks of genetic testing before making a decision.
Genetic testing can both relieve uncertainty and help you make informed decisions about managing your health in the future. A negative result can provide a sense of relief and, in some cases, reduce the need for frequent checkups and screening tests. A positive result can help you take steps to reduce the risk of recurrence or of developing another cancer. For example, you may decide to explore available prevention and treatment options.
However, genetic testing can also pose psychological, social or financial consequences. A positive result can cause anxiety, depression or guilt. Genetic testing may provide only limited information about an inherited condition, and some genetic mutations detected by a positive test may never lead to disease.
Also, since results of genetic testing can reveal information about other family members, genetic testing can sometimes create tension with a family. Confidentiality is another concern. Fortunately, the law prohibits insurance companies and employers from discriminating against anyone based on genetic information about that individual.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FOR INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR CANCER RISK AND GENETIC TESTING FOR CANCER.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. AVOIDING KNOWN RISK FACTORS DOES NOT ENSURE PREVENTION AGAINST CANCER, NOR DOES EXPOSURE TO A PARTICULAR CANCER RISK FACTOR MEAN THAT YOU WILL DEFINITELY GET CANCER. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING YOUR CANCER RISK.
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