While most cancer diagnoses are sporadic, five to ten percent of cancer cases are hereditary in nature.
Therefore, it is important for individuals to become fully aware of their family’s health history to know if they are at greater risk of developing cancer or other serious diseases.
For instance, individuals who have a close family member who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer before the age of fifty or have two or more family members who have been diagnosed with the disease, may be at higher risk for developing Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer).
It is also important for women to discuss any family history of breast cancer with their doctor, especially women who have had close family members develop the disease due to the BRCA 1 or 2 gene.
While breast cancer caused by the BRCA gene mutation is not common, those who are carriers of the gene are at significantly higher risk of developing the disease.
If individuals learn that they have a history of cancer in the family, especially through close relatives, it should be discussed with their primary care physician.
Depending on variables such as the form of cancer, which family member(s) was diagnosed and at what age, the patient may be referred to genetic counseling services.
Cancer genetic counselors help identify patients at risk for a heritable cancer syndrome and can discuss personalized surveillance and preventative options for those individuals.
Genetic counselors also determine the most appropriate genetic test(s) and the most informative approach to genetic testing for patients and their families.
Genetic testing is only appropriate for individuals with a strong family history of certain forms of cancer.
If a patient undergoes genetic testing, genetic counselors then help interpret the results, and help them and their physicians understand and apply genetic test results to medical management decisions.
Cone Health Cancer Center has a genetic counseling clinic dedicated to identifying individuals and families in the community with heritable cancer susceptibility to promote cancer-risk assessment and awareness, early cancer detection and cancer prevention.
Karen Powell is a genetic counselor at Cone Health Cancer Center.
She received a Bachelor of Science in zoology from Michigan State University in 1991.
Karen earned a Master of Science in genetic counseling from the University of Minnesota in 1994.
She was certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling in 1996.