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Do You Know Your Risk? Genetic Testing & Counseling for Hereditary Cancers

With Sarasota Memorial Lead Genetic Counselor Nicole Wood

A hand holds a magnifying lens over a digital image of a DNA double helix, allowing a closer examination.

“Don’t smoke.” “Eat healthy.” “Exercise often.”

There are many ways to reduce your risk of developing cancer, but what if the risk is genetic?

That’s where genetic counseling and testing comes in. Genetic counseling help individuals assess their personal level of risk of developing cancer by studying their genes and family history, looking for mutations and risk factors, and then working through their findings together.

We spoke with Nicole Wood, lead genetic counselor at the Sarasota Memorial Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute, to learn more.

What is Genetic Testing?

In short, genetic testing assesses the hereditary risk of an individual developing cancer. Hereditary means that this risk is passed down in your family’s genes.

  • Hereditary: “My grandmother had breast cancer, my mother had breast cancer, my sister had breast cancer and I had breast cancer, thanks to a mutation passed down in our DNA.”
  • Not-So-Hereditary: “My grandmother never had cancer. Neither did my mother nor my sister. I smoked for 40 years and have lung cancer.”
     

NOTE: Genetic factors can still play a role in developing cancer, even if behavioral or environmental factors are present as well.

“We’re looking at genes that are basically cancer protection mechanisms,” Wood says. “Everybody has them. But in some people, they carry a mutation and the organs that the gene is supposed to protect are left susceptible and vulnerable to cancer.”

Not every cancer has a genetic component, but as much as 10% do. And knowing your risk could be important for you and your family.

“It can help us determine why things are happening at younger ages or to multiple generations in a single family,” says Wood. “It lets us know not only where in the body that risk is, but how high is that risk, so we can tailor a monitoring program specific to the patient.”

And when it comes to cancer, early detection is always better than later.

What is Genetic Counseling?

Genetic counseling is a recommended, but not necessary, step to take when considering or undergoing genetic testing.

“The benefit to genetic counseling is helping the patient understand why,” says Wood. “Because once you know this information, you can’t un-know it. And it impacts not only you, but also your entire family.”

Know Your Family History

When determining whether or not to pursue genetic testing, assessing family history of cancer can be key. Therefore, before an appointment with a genetic counselor, it’s important to put together your own family history, including who, what and when. For example: “My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36.”

Don’t rely only on your own memory. Contact family members and ask them too. “Cancer is something that a lot of families just don’t discuss,” says Wood, “so oftentimes there is more cancer in the family than we truly realize.”

And so, before undergoing genetic testing, many patients choose to see a genetic counselor like Wood, to discuss why they may want to take the test, how the test works and what the potential outcomes might be. Knowing that you or your family may be at an elevated risk for cancer can be distressing news, and counselors are there to help make sense of what that means and what you can do about it.

“But it’s really important to have that educational conversation beforehand,” says Wood. “To make sure the test is right for you.”

Many of the patients that Wood sees already have a cancer diagnosis, and are undergoing genetic testing as a means of further understanding their condition. “And the goal with those patients is to help determine why this has happened to them and their family,” Wood says, “as well as what we can do with treatments and how to prevent it in future generations.”

A patient’s genetic predisposition to cancer can even affect important treatment decisions, including whether certain chemotherapies will work better than others.

“Someone with a particular mutation may be eligible for a different type of chemotherapy that will work specifically for that tumor,” says Wood. “And we’ll often use it to determine what type of surgery may be most beneficial.”

How Do I Make an Appointment

To learn more about hereditary cancers, genetic testing and counseling at the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute, go to smh.com/genes or call Sarasota Memorial’s Genetic Education program at (941) 917-2005.

“Just give our office a call,” says Wood. “We will be happy to set up an appointment and go through all of the relevant information with you.”

Appointments do not require a doctor’s referral, but it is recommended that you speak with your doctor beforehand.

More Resources

Take a quick family history quiz to see if you qualify for genetic testing with Sarasota Memorial.Sarasota Memorial Lead Genetic Counselor Nicole Wood

Nicole Wood, MS, CGC, is a licensed and board-certified genetic counselor serving Sarasota County and its surrounding communities. Specialty trained in oncology genetic counseling, Wood works closely with the multidisciplinary Genetic Counseling and Education team at Sarasota Memorial to provide expertise for patients’ clinical care. If you would like to learn more about hereditary cancers, or are concerned about the cancers in your family, call 941-917-2005.

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Posted: Mar 29, 2022,
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