Why Consider Genetic Counseling?

How can I tell if cancer is inherited in my family?

Sometimes, cancer seems to run in a family. In these families, there may be an inherited factor (a gene change) that increases the risk of family members developing cancer in their lifetime.

A genetic consultation is recommended for persons concerned about their risk for cancer due to a personal or family history of cancer. Some individuals who do not have an extensive family or personal history may still be at increased risk, and would benefit from a genetic consultation.

Clues to inherited cancer risk include:

  • Multiple individuals in a family with the same or related cancers (e.g., breast and ovarian; or colon and uterine cancers) 
  • Early age of onset of cancer (e.g., less than 50 years)
  • More than one primary cancer in an individual (i.e., two or more new cancers, not one that has spread)
  • Occurrence of a rare cancer (e.g., male breast cancer)
  • Occurrence of cancer in a person not exposed to a known risk factor for that cancer (e.g., lung cancer in a non-smoker)
  • Existence of a cancer gene mutation in the family

What can be done if my family is at increased risk for cancer?

Cancer screening is very important. If there is a family history of cancer, it may be recommended to begin cancer screening at an earlier age and repeat it more frequently, and there may be ways for individuals with a high-risk to decrease their risk for cancer. 

Genetic testing is available for several genes associated with cancer. These tests may confirm a specific gene change (mutation) as the likely cause of a diagnosed cancer, identify potential risks for other cancers or conditions, be used to check if family members are at an increased susceptibility to cancer, and possibly modify medical management. Genetic testing is specific to an individual and family. All results are reviewed with the individual by a member of the Genetic Screening team.

Can anyone have genetic testing?

Genetic testing is not recommended for everyone. Generally, its use is limited to families with certain types of cancers who meet specific criteria or are diagnosed or are suspected of having an inherited cancer syndrome. Genetic testing for cancer is very complicated and raises many questions. Many factors need to be considered by the doctor, the genetic specialist, and the person considering testing. Therefore, genetic consultation and risk assessment is recommended before considering genetic testing.