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Medical Genetics: Genetic Testing for Cancer Risk

Researchers are continuing to find genes that show if person has a higher risk for certain cancers. Different kinds of tests show different levels of cancer risk. Some tests may even help people who don’t have a personal or family history of cancer. You can be tested by working with your healthcare provider. And there are companies that sell genetic test kits you can use at home.

Who should be tested?

Should you be tested for genes that can show cancer risk? The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends cancer genetic risk testing only if:

  • You have a personal or family history that may be linked to genetic cancer risk

  • The information from a genetic test can be understood

  • The test results will help with the diagnosis, treatment, or management of you or family members at risk for cancer

About home test kits

Home test kits can be confusing. They may give you information that won’t help you prevent or treat any disease, but instead may just worry you. If you decide to buy a home test kit, make sure to tell your healthcare provider and discuss the results with him or her. Your healthcare provider can help you:

  • Understand the results of the test

  • Compare the test results with family history and external factors

  • Get follow-up care if needed

  • Explain when there are no follow-up care options for certain results      

Making the choice to be tested

It’s a big decision to have genetic testing. It can cause relief or stress. For example, a negative test result in a family with a known gene problem may give you a lot of relief about your personal cancer risk and the risk to your children. This can help you avoid unneeded medical procedures. Or a positive test result can help you prevent or manage a disease.

But getting your genetic test results can be confusing and stressful. A negative test may let you think you don’t have a risk for disease, even though you may still have an increased risk because of other factors. Or the test results may be unclear. This can be frustrating or lead to wrong health decisions.

Getting genetic counseling

It’s very important to have a good understanding of what the tests may or may not tell you before you have them. Before you decide to have genetic testing, talk with a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can take you through pre-test and post-test counseling. He or she can help you understand the medical, social, and legal issues associated with genetic test results. To find a genetic counselor, talk with your primary healthcare provider or your community hospital system.

 

Medical Reviewers:

  • Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
  • Karlin, Ronald, MD
  • Levin, Mark, MD