How can you find out more about your family health history? According to Beaumont experts, family gatherings during the holiday season are the best time to ask questions and take notes about your family’s health history.
Breast and ovarian cancer are two of the most common types of cancer found in women and the potential for you to develop these cancers increases if your family has a history of the disease.
Beaumont Hospital – Dearborn genetic counselor Emily Swan, MS, CGC, answers some common questions about the importance of genetic counseling and testing for the prevention and treatment of cancer and other illnesses:
What is genetic counseling and testing?
Genetic testing can tell us whether or not you’re at risk for certain types of cancer. However, genetic counseling doesn’t always lead to genetic testing. The counseling component is the educational part. A genetic counselor’s job begins with talking to people and offering guidance to help them make decisions because not everybody needs genetic testing.
Who is a good candidate for genetic testing?
Anyone with a family member who has been diagnosed with cancer is a good candidate for genetic testing. When it comes to breast or ovarian cancer, a woman whose mother has already been diagnosed is an ideal candidate. The more you know about the diseases that run in your family, the more effective you and your physician can be in screening for them.
How does genetic testing work?
It begins with a conversation that lasts about an hour. We sit down, go through the basics and look at pictures of genetics and examples. Testing begins with some paperwork, which is easy – you just have to sign a couple of forms and then we either draw your blood or get a saliva sample. Test results take about two to four weeks.
What happens once you get the results?
We can call you and go over your results on the phone, or you can come in and we can discuss the results in person. You might be nervous about learning about your genetic risk for disease. Think of it this way: talking about your family’s health history, writing it down and sharing it with family members and your doctor is a powerful way to take charge of your life and your health. Knowledge is truly powerful.
What kinds of questions should I ask my family members?
You should ask your grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles about their health history. Ask if they’ve had children and whether they struggled with infertility because never having children can result in a higher risk factor for ovarian cancer. Ask about those who had cancer, what type it was, how old they were when diagnosed and how closely related they are. Write down everything you learn so the details aren’t lost or forgotten.
Is cancer always hereditary?
About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are hereditary. The general population risk of ovarian cancer is roughly about one in 70 people, less than 2 percent. However, if your mother, sister or daughter has had ovarian cancer, your risk goes up to 5 percent.
Do women diagnosed with cancer need genetic testing?
We recommend genetic counseling for anyone who wants to get a better sense of their family health history, especially a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer, such as ovarian or breast cancer. Not everyone needs genetic testing, but we can talk about the option during the counseling session.
What can men do if their mother, grandmother or sister had ovarian cancer? Can they have a test done too?
Even though men can’t get ovarian cancer, they can certainly transmit the genes to their daughters. An old myth of cancer is that it always goes through the mom’s side and the dad’s side doesn’t matter, but that’s not true with these genes. They can equally come from your mom or your dad.
Swan adds, “You can’t change your genes, but you can take steps to reduce the risks of disease. If cancers, heart disease and diabetes run in your family, you have even more of a reason to quit smoking or never start in the first place. Eating well, managing your weight and alcohol intake, and getting regular exercise will lower your overall risk for disease as well.”