Buddy Check: Genetic testing can provide a road map to potential cancer risks

Buddy Check 7
Published: Oct. 6, 2022 at 9:32 AM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Knowing your risk factors for breast cancer can help you and your doctor make decisions about your health and your chances of developing breast cancer. One way to get a picture of your risk factors is through genetic testing.

Anna Cisler is a genetic counselor with Marshfield Clinic.

“Genetic testing is a way to look at a person’s underlying genetic information to see if there’s any changes or differences that might explain or predict a particular health concern,” she explained.

Family history is just one of the factors that can make someone a candidate for genetic testing. According to Cisler, genetic risk for developing cancer is, on average, only present in about five to ten percent of cases. Certain types of cancers have higher rates. She adds that the best candidates for genetic testing can be those who have already fought cancer. Their results can help paint a picture of what the rest of the family might be facing.

“They will be the most informative in the family,” Cisler said.

Ultimately, getting tested is a personal choice.

“Our goal as genetic counselors is to provide education about what the tests can and cannot tell us, and to help process through with patients,” Cisler explained. “What is their goal for considering genetic testing and does the reality of what genetic testing can offer match that goal?”

Testing is done with either a blood or saliva sample that’s sent to a third-party lab to look for differences in genetic coding.

“It’s essentially like running a spell checker through a word document,” Cisler said. “The lab is looking at the letters for the genetic code for the genes we’re interested in, looking for any spelling differences.”

Those differences can lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.

“We also sometimes look for some of those other types of cancers that could occur with a gene that causes breast cancer risk, such as ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and others,” Cisler said.

Testing takes an average of two to three weeks to come back. There are three different types of results: Positive, which means a risk factor has been identified; Negative, meaning that the test came back normal; and Uncertain, which means that there’s not enough information to tell if a difference in the genetic code can cause risk or not.

All patients will get a phone call from a genetic counselor to discuss their results. Positive patients get an invitation back to talk with a counselor, “to discuss in much more detail what are the different risks associated with that finding, what are their options for care, and also how does that impact their family,” Cisler explained.

Whatever the results, knowing can help inform decisions moving forward.

“It opens possibilities to adjust and manage their care differently based on those risk values,” Cisler said.

To learn more about genetic testing services at Marshfield Clinic, click here.