Jennifer Siettmann is a genetic counselor at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Question: How do genetics contribute to diseases like cancer? How can I know if I’m at an increased risk?
Answer: We have known for a long time that common diseases such as cancer, heart disease, asthma and diabetes, as well as rare diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia can run in families. However, that does not guarantee that you are going to have the same medical conditions as your mother, father, brother or sister.
These kinds of questions, as well as questions on why the same disease affects people so differently, have helped make genetic research an important part of many new medical studies. As our understanding advances, we are better able to explain how your lifestyle choices and your genetic information can impact your health.
Scientists have identified many of the genes responsible for rare disease and are working hard to understand the role of genes in common and complex diseases such as heart disease. With our growing knowledge and understanding, the use of genetic tests has become increasingly common.
Of course, that doesn't mean you need to go out and get a genetic test tomorrow. In fact, there are many direct-to-consumer genetic tests that have become very popular and can be a lot of fun. But keep in mind that direct-to-consumer tests are superficial and not always accurate. They can help you discover your ancestry, if you can taste cilantro or how caffeine affects you, for example, but they cannot clearly or accurately help to identify your individual risk for breast cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease.
If you want to determine your risk for a genetic disease, a genetic counselor can help you. However, you can start by pulling together a health history of your family. I suggest you start simple – with your immediate family. Ask your relatives simple questions such as their age, daily medications they take, and get a list of medical conditions and past surgeries. From there, you can move into more detailed information on their health history.
See if you can get any information on relatives that have passed, including their medical conditions, surgeries and their cause and date of death. Talk to enough family members and soon you will create a Family Health Tree of family history. And if you think you see a pattern, bring your family history to your physician and see if genetic testing or further medical management options are appropriate for your family. That way, you’re using your family history to not only serve your own health, but also the health of your family.