What is genetic counseling for people who have been diagnosed with cancer, and what are the benefits?

Gail Martino is a certified genetic counselor on staff at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: What is genetic counseling for people who have been diagnosed with cancer, and what are the benefits?

Answer: For this discussion, cancer can be categorized as sporadic cancer or hereditary cancer. Sporadic cancer is not caused by some inherited genetic mutation and accounts for 90-95% of cases, according to the National Cancer Institute. Hereditary cancer, which accounts for the remaining 5-10% of cases, is the result of an inherited genetic mutation, meaning the individual was born with a genetic predisposition to the cancer. In 2012, the American Cancer Society estimates there were roughly 1.6 million new cases of cancer. This equates to roughly 80,000-160,000 new cases of hereditary cancer.

Genetic counseling is an opportunity to educate people diagnosed with cancer and their families, determine the specific cause of the cancer, design a specific and effective course of treatment, and reduce future risks. Additionally, it allows us to look at whether family members may be at risk, how high their risk is, and what they can do to minimize that risk.

Genetic counseling and testing offers physical and psychological benefits. Physically, if we know what kind of cancer an individual has we are able determine how to most effectively treat it, as well as provide the patient and family members with education and tools they need to reduce future risks. Psychologically, knowing why you have cancer can be comforting in many ways. Knowledge is power. With hereditary cases, it can also reassure a patient that he/she did nothing to cause the cancer.

When considering genetic counseling, ask yourself the following questions: (1) Are there more than 2-3 family members who have the same kind of cancer; (2) If so, are these people on the same side of the family?; (3) Is there rare cancer in your family, like ovarian cancer?; (4) Are family members getting cancer under the age of 50?; and, (5) Are there family members with multiple types of cancer, like breast and ovarian cancer? Answering yes to any of these questions is a red flag for hereditary cancer. But, certainly, these aren’t the only risk factors. There are other factors and variables at play, such as ethnic background, gender, or perhaps a known cancer-causing genetic mutation in the family.

If you have any questions about genetic counseling for cancer, contact your healthcare provider. He/she can help you determine whether genetic counseling is appropriate and how to proceed.