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About 5-10 percent of the time cancer is caused by hereditary (or inherited) factors. By learning if you have a genetic form of cancer, you can better understand your risk of developing certain kinds of cancers. With this information, you can learn ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer and also how to detect cancers early.
We have thousands of genes in our bodies and each gene has an important job. We know that some of these genes work specifically to prevent cancers from growing. If we have a gene that is not working, what we call a mutation, our body is not as good at stopping cancers from developing. With this gene mutation, we know that there are increased risks to develop certain kinds of cancers.
Most of the time gene mutations are inherited from one of our parents; other times these mutations happen new in an individual. Either way, there is nothing that someone can do to cause a gene mutation from happening.
A genetic counselor is a trained professional who meets with individuals and their families to review their personal and family histories. The genetic counselor helps determine a patient’s cancer risks, explain benefits and limitations to genetic testing, and helps with recommendations to reduce cancer risk or provide ways for early cancer detection.
If a mutation is found on a genetic test it means that this person has increased risks for cancers. The genetic counselor can help you understand which cancers you have an increased risk for. You will learn about the specific condition, how it’s caused, what the risks are, ways to reduce your risks, and who else in the family may be at risk for the same condition. There are many resources for individuals with a genetic syndrome, such as early detection options, educational opportunities, psychosocial assistance and support groups.
Sometimes it is not possible to identify a mutation that is causing cancer in a family. This may mean that there is no genetic explanation for cancer. Other times this means that there is probably a genetic reason for cancer in the family; we just do not know how to identify it at this time. A genetic counselor can help you understand what negative genetic test results likely mean.
Some people are very interested in learning about their genetic risks. They would like to understand the history of cancer in the family and learn about potential ways to reduce their risk.
Other people do not want to know about a genetic risk of cancer. They may find it scary or overwhelming. Sometimes people do not think knowing about a genetic mutation would change the kind of healthcare they receive.
Genetic test results, like any other part of your medical record, are confidential. There are state and federal laws in place to protect individuals from health insurance discrimination and employment discrimination based on a genetic test result. To learn more about national laws that protect you from health insurance and employment discrimination you can visit www.ginahelp.org.
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