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Cancer Care: The Importance of Genetic Testing

Cancer Care: The Importance of Genetic Testing

Written by Christie Jett, Valley Health Licensed Certified Genetic Counselor

I am an oncology genetic counselor, and I have been a member of the Valley Health Oncology team since 2016. Cancer will likely affect all of us in one way or another. A loved one may receive a diagnosis, or it may touch us directly.

Many times cancer happens “out of the blue” to a person with no known family history of cancer. About 5-10% of the time, though, cancer is part of a hereditary cancer syndrome, and this is where genetic testing is helpful.

What is genetic testing?

Think of your DNA like the instruction manual that your body uses to keep itself working properly. Any changes, or mutations, in your DNA are like typographical errors, or typos, in that manual. Sometimes the typo is minor, and your body can keep running normally. Sometimes, an important piece of the manual might be missing or incorrect, and this can cause problems. Genetic testing allows your doctors to check your DNA for these kinds of mutations. If your genetic testing shows that you do carry one of these mutations, then we know a hereditary cancer syndrome is behind the cancers that you or your loved ones experience.

Who should receive genetic testing?

The best person to test is the family member most likely to carry the mutation, and that isn’t always the person who comes to see me for genetic counseling. Part of a genetic counseling visit involves completing a pedigree – a detailed look at three generations of family medical history. I do this to determine exactly which test to order (because there are a lot to choose from!) but also to figure out the best person to test. This might be the family member with a rare cancer (like pancreatic or ovarian), or one who was diagnosed the youngest, or someone diagnosed more than once.

Why should someone get genetic testing?

Genetic testing is helpful because it tells your doctors how best to provide preventive care for you. People with hereditary cancer syndromes may need earlier and more frequent cancer screenings, like mammograms or colonoscopies. Sometimes doctors can even perform surgeries or prescribe medications to reduce your cancer risks. By starting screenings early, we hope to find cancers at earlier stages when treatment can be more effective. Thinking about cancer risks can be intimidating and frightening, but ultimately the goal is to help you and your loved ones have the longest and healthiest lives.

How do you learn more about Valley Health genetic testing?

To learn more about genetic counseling, contact the Oncology Genetics Program, located at Winchester Medical Center, by calling 540-536-1655. To schedule an appointment, please have your doctor fax a referral to our office: 540-536-3837.

Visit valleyhealthlink.com/cancercare to learn more about cancer care in our community.