May 5, 2017

Genetic testing doesn’t always mean more certainty

Our expert voices conversation on genetic testing for cancer.

Finding an inherited cancer risk gene can help prevent cancer and save lives. Carriers of mutations in certain genes need earlier and more frequent screening procedures (e.g. colonoscopy, mammogram) to catch a cancer in its early stages or even before it develops. In some cases, they have the option of preventive surgery. Carriers of certain mutations who have cancer themselves may benefit from treatments that specifically target the genetic mutation. The impact on one's family can be tremendous as well — they should be tested too once a mutation is found.

But genetic testing is not always black-and-white, and can create substantial uncertainty. For example, testing can detect genetic changes for which the associated cancer risk is entirely unknown. Acting on such uncertain results can lead to unnecessary surgeries, screening, and anxiety.

Bottom line: Undergoing genetic testing is a highly personal decision but should be considered by everyone who has had cancer or a family history of cancer.

The other voices in the conversation:

Theodora Ross, oncologist, UT Southwestern Medical Center: To test or not to test, that is the question

Jill Hagenkord, chief medical officer, Color: Preventive genomics has arrived

Charis Eng, geneticist, Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute: Genetic knowledge is power

Therese Bevers, prevention specialist, MD Anderson Cancer Center: What a cancer-risk assessment can tell you

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