Most of the time cancer happens without a known underlying cause. But in some cases and in some families, a higher likelihood of cancer is passed down in genes from generation to generation. When a gene for cancer is passed down, this increases an individual’s risk for cancer. Knowing your risk can help you make important medical decisions.
Currently in our office, we offer genetic testing for colorectal cancer, breast and ovarian cancer, melanoma, and a compilation of cancers called Lynch Syndrome. (Lynch syndrome consists of cancer in the colon, uterus, stomach, ovaries, brain, biliary tract, kidney/urinary tract, small bowel and pancreas.) Testing is also available for prostate and pancreatic cancer.
When patients come to the office with a new or older diagnosis of cancer, sometimes, their family history is suggestive of a hereditary type of cancer. If genetic testing is done, the entire family may be able to receive more frequent screening for certain types of cancer and other family members may be able to prevent a cancer or have that cancer diagnosed at a very early stage when it can be treated.
In order to be prepared to determine if genetic screening is right for you, you need to know your family history of cancer as fast as you can. This may mean making a few phone calls to some other relatives to see if they have any additional information. To qualify for a genetic test, certain family relationships or ages at the time of cancer diagnosis are required. Most people who qualify for genetic testing do not have a hereditary cancer. The current tests also can only diagnose what we know so far about the genetics of cancer. A negative test does not mean that there is not an increased risk of cancer.
If you have a positive test for genetic cancer, proactive decisions can be made to try to avoid future cancers. For example, a woman diagnosed with genetic breast cancer, has a higher risk of ovarian cancer. She may or may not choose to have her ovaries removed once she is able to understand the increased risk. Other family members may also qualify for genetic testing once one person in the family has a positive result.
Talking with your physician about a strong family history of cancer may lead to the conclusion that you would like more information about genetic tests for cancer.