A doctor with a clipboard speaking with a patient.

Where can you find out if you have a cancer gene that runs in your family?

May 26, 2004

A doctor with a clipboard speaking with a patient.

A curious adult from the United Kingdom asks:

“Where can you find out if you have a cancer gene that goes through your family? All my family seems to be getting cancer and it doesn’t seem to leave anyone out.”

You have a very good question, and a great place to start would be to contact a genetic counselor. Where do you find a genetic counselor? Check with your primary or OB/GYN doctor who can refer you to one of these specialists. Alternatively, you can check for a local genetic counselor at the website of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. It is important to have the support and expertise of a genetic counselor through this process.

Genetic counselors are health professionals with specialized graduate degrees and experience in the areas of medical genetics and counseling. They work as members of a health care team, providing information and support to families who have members with birth defects or genetic disorders and to families who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions, such as breast cancer. Genetic counselors identify families at risk, investigate the problem present in the family, interpret information about the disorder, analyze inheritance patterns and risks of recurrence and review available options with the family, including testing.

What you could expect after contacting a genetic counselor are detailed questions about your family history, especially about those members with breast or other types of cancer. You may be requested to help obtain medical records on various family members as part of the evaluation. For example, most breast cancer is not hereditary, and testing is appropriate for only a small percentage of families. Deciding whether to be tested for the change in the gene that gives a person a high risk of developing breast cancer is difficult for many people and genetic counselors may set up multiple meetings with patients to discuss all the issues involved.

Author: Cindy Soliday

When this answer was published in 2004, Cindy was a student in the Stanford MS Program in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling. Cindy wrote this answer while participating in the Stanford at The Tech program.

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