As a cancer survivor, it’s understandable that you’d be concerned your cancer diagnosis would increase the cancer risk level of your family members. And while it might seem logical to encourage your blood relatives to pursue genetic testing as soon as possible, it’s important to understand that genetic testing is only helpful in predicting cancer in a small percentage of individuals.
Lifestyle Trumps Genetics When It Comes to Cancer Risk
Only a small percentage of cancer cases are related to genetics. In fact, only 5% to 10% according to experts. And only certain types of cancers, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and endometrial cancer, are more likely to be hereditary. When you think about it, that’s actually very good news. While there’s nothing you can do about the genes you were born with, you most certainly can do something about lifestyle factors (smoking, excess drinking, unhealthy eating habits, not exercising, excess sun exposure) that increase your cancer risks. For certain individuals, though, genetic testing can be incredibly beneficial.
In What Situations is Genetic Testing for Cancer Warranted?
Before making a final decision about genetic testing, it’s a good idea for you and/or your loved ones to put pen to paper, contact as many relatives as possible, and create a family cancer history map. Your primary focus should be on filling in the cancer histories of as many first-degree (parents, siblings, and children) and second-degree (grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews) relatives as possible. Genetic testing may be warranted if one or more first- or second-degree relatives has been diagnosed with:
- Cancer diagnosis under the age of 50
- Ovarian cancer, regardless of age
- More than 20 colon polyps
- The same type of cancer
- Rare cancers including sarcoma or male breast cancer
- Two or more different types of cancer that have occurred independently in the same person
- Cancer in both organs of a set of paired organs, such as both kidneys or both breasts
- A genetic mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2
There are some additional genetic risk factors that should be taken into consideration as well. These include certain ethnic predispositions, specifically Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry and/or having three or more relatives who have developed breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and/or aggressive prostate cancer.
If family history raises red flags, your or your relative’s doctor will probably recommend meeting with a genetic counselor for genetic counseling. A genetic counselor will be able to further pinpoint the odds of having a genetic mutation that raises the risk of certain types of cancers. Their recommendation as to whether or not you should have genetic testing will be based on the genetic counselor’s findings.
Are You Emotionally Prepared for the Results?
Even if you or your loved ones fit the criteria for genetic testing, it doesn’t mean you have to go forward with it. While having answers can be a good thing, genetic testing can be potentially life-changing. Therefore, before you decide to pursue it, it’s wise to consider and prepare for the “what-ifs.” Additionally, when someone discovers they’re at increased risk of developing cancer, that may mean their close relatives have the same risk. Before someone undergoes genetic testing, it may be smart to discuss that with their close relatives and find out if they want to know the results (since the results could affect them, too.)
It can be scary to find out that you are at an increased risk of developing cancer. However, having that bit of knowledge may allow you to be proactive in ways that will reduce your risk (such as preventive mastectomies to reduce the risk of breast cancer). And, just because you learn you have an increased risk of cancer, that does not mean you will definitely develop cancer. If you would like to learn more about whether or not genetic testing is right for your loved ones, we encourage you to contact us to learn more. Genetic testing is available through many of the Arizona Oncology cancer centers throughout the state. Find a location convenient to you.