Cancer Prevention: Know Your Family History – Genetic Counseling

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While most cancer diagnoses are sporadic, five to ten percent of cancer cases are hereditary in nature. Therefore, it is important for individuals to be 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). For individuals with a family history of cancer, it may be recommended to begin getting screened before the recommended age, which is why it’s important to talk with your primary care provider if you learn that you have a family history of cancer, especially through close relatives.

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.

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. At the Cone Health Cancer Center at Wesley Long Hospital, the most common types of cancer we see are breast cancer, colorectal cancer and ovarian cancer, but we can help patients with any type of cancer in their family. Before you visit a genetic counselor, you’ll be asked to fill out a form about your family history for the counselor will use to guide their questions. Now, patients that use MyChart can fill the form out online and submit it beforehand instead of bringing a printed version with them.

Genetic counselors take a family history of at least 3 generations, preferably 4-5 generations to take a proper risk assessment. The genetic counseling clinic also takes self-referrals.

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. To learn more about Cone Health’s Genetic Counseling services, visit

Spokesperson Background:

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 and is the current president.

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