Inherited Risk

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 What is inherited cancer risk?
Genes carry a specific set of instructions for the cells in your body, but sometimes the genetic material can be changed or mutated. These changes can trigger the development of cancer. Here are a few known facts about hereditary cancers.

  • Hereditary cancers are caused by a change (mutation) in certain genes.
    • Gene changes may be passed down from either parent to their children.
    • Gene changes may increase a person’s risk for developing one or more types of cancer (not everyone who inherits the changed gene will necessarily develop cancer, however).
  • Most cancers are sporadic, or happen by chance, and occur in patients without a family history (these cancers are not inherited).
  • While family hereditary cancers are a real concern and increase one’s risk of developing cancer, most cancer patients have no clear hereditary component to their cancers. Approximately 5-10% of all cancers are “inherited” or “hereditary.” 

Who is likely to have inherited cancer risk?
The following features make inherited cancer risk more likely within a family:

  • Two or more people, on the same side of the family, have the same type of cancer.
  • Cancer diagnosed at age 50 or younger.
  • Cancer in paired organs (e.g. both breasts, both eyes, etc.)
  • The presence of a very rare cancer (e.g., male breast cancer)
  • A single person has more than one type of cancer (e.g., both colon and uterine cancer OR both breast and ovarian cancer).
  • Cancer in two or more generations.
  • Ethnic background (for example, BRCA mutations are more common in those of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry).

There may be one or there may be several of these features in a family.

Why do people want to know their cancer risk?
People want to know their cancer risk for many different reasons. The most common reasons are to:

  • understand the risk of cancer for themselves or their children
  • discover if inheritance played a role in the development of their cancer or a family member’s cancer
  • obtain information about cancer screening tests, such as mammography or colonoscopy, and about how often the tests should be done
  • make decisions about the use of medical or surgical options to manage their higher cancer risks

What does an inherited risk mean?
An inherited risk does not mean you have received a diagnosis of cancer. It simply means that you were born with alterations to your DNA, which increases your chance of developing certain cancers.

What is genetic testing? And why is it important?
Genetic testing for hereditary cancer involves examining a person’s DNA to be examined for possible mutations or changes. Before considering genetic testing, however, the first step is to meet with a genetic counselor to discuss your personal and family history and determine the likelihood of inherited genetic mutation. This is important because cancer risk is increased not by just one mutated gene, but rather by the pattern of cancers in your family that suggest which genes are more likely to be mutated.

What happens if I see a genetics counselor?
The genetics counselor will review your personal and family cancer history, including the type(s) of cancer and age(s) of diagnosis. The genetics counselor will discuss the risks, benefits and limitation of testing, the emotional implications, and the benefits and limitations of testing, including insurance coverage and confidentiality. The discussion will help you decide if genetic testing is right for you.

How might I use the results of genetic counseling and testing?
The information provided may help to estimate a person’s risks for developing certain types of cancer, and to create an individual plan for screening and management based on those risks. This information may also be very useful for other family members.

Is genetic counseling the same thing as genetic testing?
No. Genetic counseling is a form of education and risk assessment. Individuals having genetic counseling learn about their specific risk factors based on reported information. Having genetic counseling does not mean that a person has to proceed with genetic testing. Many individuals who have genetic counseling do not have genetic testing. Genetic testing in a cancer setting involves specific analysis of blood to look for a constitutional gene change that is linked with an increased risk to develop cancer.

Who are genetic counselors?
Genetic Counselors are health care professionals with specialized graduate degrees and training in medical genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors work as part of a medical team consisting of medical geneticists (physicians specializing in genetics), nurses, oncologists, social workers, and others.

I want genetic testing. Do I need to have the genetic counseling?
Yes. Genetic counseling by an experienced health care professional (ideally a certified or credentialed genetics professional) is an essential part of the genetic testing process and is critical for accurate result interpretation and management. During the genetic consultation, the risks, benefits, and limitations of genetic testing are discussed. The consultation also includes a discussion of medical management options for an individual and his/her family as well as information regarding issues such as the importance of confidentiality.

How do I make an appointment?
To make a genetic counseling appointment, please call 813-745-6769.

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