Genetic Counseling—Who Should Get It?

Between 5 and 10 percent of cancer cases are hereditary. Genetic counseling could help you determine your risk.

One of the most frightening things about cancer is the element of the unknown. Genetic counseling can alleviate some of that fear by allowing you to better understand your risk of developing certain hereditary cancers. The most common of these is the BRCA mutation, known to be related to breast and ovarian cancer.

Unlike the genetic changes that occur during your lifetime, such as those caused by tobacco smoke or damage from ultraviolet A and B rays, these genetic mutations are inherited from one or both parents. Some cancer-related mutations include:

  • PALB2—linked to increased risk of breast and pancreatic cancer
  • CHEK2—linked to up to a 58 percent increase in female breast cancer risk and could also increase risk of breast cancer and prostate and colon cancer in men
  • Lynch syndrome—Involving mutations in the MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, or EPCAM genes, this syndrome can increase risk of uterine, ovarian, colon, pancreatic, central nervous system, urinary tract, small bowel, and gastric cancers.

Should You Schedule a Genetic Counseling Appointment?

Your doctor may suggest genetic counseling if you have a personal or family history of cancer, particularly if there are signs of hereditary cancer. 

When preparing for your appointment with a genetic counselor, remember to bring with you:

  • A family history of cancer diagnoses, including the age at which each person was diagnosed and his or her relationship to you
  • A list of family members, including how old they are currently or how old they were at the time of their death, as well as cause of death
  • Your personal medical history, including any pathology reports and notes from your past doctors

Having a trusted friend or family member with you at your counseling appointment could also be beneficial from an emotional standpoint. If you have limited information about your family history, don’t worry—it’s not an absolute requirement.

The testing itself is fairly simple—you have blood drawn that is then analyzed at the genetic level for mutations. While the information that you receive from testing can be limited, it is beneficial in that it can help you and your doctor better monitor your health going forward.

Genetic testing isn’t necessary, or the right choice, for everyone. Talk to your doctor, as well as your family, before making the decision to have testing done.

Most importantly, remember—even if you carry a gene mutation, that does not mean you will develop cancer. It simply gives you and your doctor a heads up and allows you to manage your risks.

Genetic counseling is available at Austin Cancer Center. Learn more here.