Aug 25, 2021 10:00 AM

Read time: 4 minutes

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Why is genetic testing important even after a cancer diagnosis?

There are many thoughts and emotions that come with being a cancer survivor. Every person’s journey is different. There may be challenges and new information along the way. The goal of cancer genetics is to help patients and their families understand if cancer is hereditary. It is helpful to know what types of cancers you may be at risk for and what type of screening is recommended. Genetic information is useful at the start of a cancer diagnosis and for the future. 

What is genetic testing?  

Genetic testing is done to see if you have a genetic mutation (a change in a gene) linked with increased cancer risks. If there is a mutation in one of these genes, it may cause an increased risk for certain types of cancer. For example, if you have a mutation in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2, you may be at an increased risk for breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma.

What can I learn from genetic testing?  

Genetic testing can tell us if you have a mutation that caused your diagnosis or may create an increased risk for certain cancers. It can help us discuss different screening methods to catch cancers at an earlier, treatable stage. Based on genetic testing results, additional treatment options can be decided. Genetic testing for new patients may be different for someone who has already had cancer.

I have been diagnosed with cancer, why does genetic testing matter?

Genetic testing is helpful when we start with people who have already been diagnosed with cancer. Testing people who have been diagnosed with cancer gives us the highest chance to find a hereditary marker. That information can be used in multiple ways. A genetic counselor can help you know who in your family should get genetic testing first.

  • Genetic testing may provide an explanation for your cancer history.
  • Genetic testing may find a mutation in a gene that causes an increased risk for multiple types of cancer. Many genes associated with colon cancer lead to increased risks for uterine, ovarian and other cancer types. Knowing about an increased risk for a second cancer in the future could change management recommendations.
  • Having a gene mutation means you may be at risk for additional cancers. Knowing this information allows for increased screening and management moving forward. This could help detect other cancers at an earlier, more treatable stage. For some cancers, there are also ways to lower your risk through surgery, medication, or lifestyle changes. 

How can my genetic information help my family?

Most genetic mutations linked with increased cancer risk are inherited, passed down through generations. Parents, siblings, children, and other blood-related family members could also have this gene mutation and be at an increased risk for cancer. This information could help family members know when to start screening and what type of screening they should get.

How does someone know if genetic testing is right for them?

When we see patients and families with the following red flags, we are more concerned for a hereditary cancer condition:

  • Young age at diagnosis (<45 for breast cancer, <50 for colon and other cancers)
  • Certain rare cancers such as pancreatic or ovarian cancer
  • Multiple relatives on the same side of the family diagnosed with any cancer
  • Multiple relatives on the same side of the family diagnosed with the same type of cancer
  • Multiple cancers in one person (e.g. breast and ovarian cancer, colon and uterine/endometrial cancer, pancreatic and breast or colon cancer) 

Knowing and sharing your family’s medical history information with your healthcare providers in important. Based on your family history, your healthcare provider may recommend a genetic counselor to discuss your options. If you do not meet the criteria for genetic testing, your doctors may still recommend different screenings based on your family history.

What should I do if I am concerned about my personal or family cancer history?

Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Ask for a referral to a genetic counselor if you want to have an in-depth discussion about your family cancer history. 

You can also schedule a genetic counseling appointment in the Huntsman Cancer Institute Family Cancer Assessment Clinic without a referral. We offer visits by phone, video, or in person. To make a genetic counseling appointment, call 801-587-9555.

genetics cancer screening cancer prevention

Cancer touches all of us.

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