Many people are afraid to get genetic testing done for cancer for the same reason they avoid bringing their car in for a checkup: they are afraid of finding problems. They may feel they have a higher chance of finding trouble if they actively go looking for it. Moreover, they cannot imagine how they would deal with any bad news. However, a genetic predisposition for cancer does not mean the die is cast. Other factors contribute to the outcome as well. Some of these are under the patient’s control. A person with a genetic vulnerability toward cancer would do well to find out where he or she stands, and if necessary, consider making lifestyle changes to reduce the odds of actually contracting cancer.
How Does Genetic Testing Tie in with a Disease Like Cancer?
The human genome, i.e. the genetic recipe that determines our characteristics, consists of 23 chromosomal pairs. These pairs reside in the mitochondria of cell nuclei in a small DNA molecule. This molecule contains individual genes that determine everything about a person from body size to hair color. Two of these genes, the BRCA1 and the BRCA2 carry markers for breast and ovarian cancer. Normally, these genes are tumor suppressors. Mutations in these two genes increase the likelihood of developing cancer in the carrier.
Will Genetic Testing Determine That Someone will Definitely Contract Cancer?
No. In fact, genetic testing cannot even determine the odds for a specific individual. It only determines if a person is a member of a high-risk group. For each person, the chances of contracting cancer vary widely depending on other factors. One of these factors is whether other members of the person’s family have had cancer. If a person’s parents, grandparents, or siblings have developed cancer, then they are in a higher risk group. Genetic testing for cancer can help determine if they have inherited the familial tendency toward cancer or not.
What are Other Contributing Factors?
Once an individual finds they are at risk through genetic testing for breast cancer, they should analyze the other salient factors. These include the following:
- Reproductive and menstrual history
- The use of oral contraceptives
- Exposure to radiation
- Alcohol use
- Physical activity and fitness
- Benign breast disease
- Mammographic density
Some of these factors are under the individual’s direct control. For instance, a person that has found a genetic vulnerability can work with their physician to reduce alcohol intake and become more physically fit. They will also understand how regular mammograms are especially important for people in their situation.
What Does Genetic Testing Involve?
The testing process is generally simple and straightforward. A physician can perform the procedure by taking a buccal smear with a cotton swab from the inside of the cheek. The doctor can also collect the sample with a mouthwash, or by taking a sample of the skin, hair, or blood.
Testing Anxiety is Normal
Many people learn the importance of genetic testing for cancer, but still do not go through with the procedure. They should know that feeling apprehensive is normal. Their doctors can help them with the emotional aspect of cancer testing by arranging special genetic counseling. Counselors can help both the individual and the family. They can provide counseling concerning both the level of risk and the options available for support.
In summary, the entire testing and counseling process allows individuals to find where they stand and if they need to pay special attention to the possibility of breast cancer. If necessary, the process will also help each person devise a plan of lifestyle changes to reduce the chances of actually contracting the disease.