It’s one of the most common questions to have after finding out you have cancer, especially if others in your family have had cancer, too: How did I get cancer and could it have been passed from a family member?
Research shows about 10% of cancers have a hereditary component, meaning the person inherited a mutation in their genes that puts them at an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.
If you’ve ever had a cancer diagnosis, you may be eligible for genetic testing, but you may have some questions before you take the leap. Ashley Hendershot, D.N.P., F.N.P.-B.C., B.S.N., works as a nurse practitioner with Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Hereditary Cancer Screening and Risk Reduction Program and answers some common questions below.
Should all cancer survivors get genetic testing?
It depends on the type of cancer. Most cancer types meet criteria for genetic testing. Some of the most common cancer types that meet criteria include breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, colon, and uterine. However, some cancer types are not associated with genetic predisposition and are usually related to environmental exposures. For example, lung cancer tends to be tied with smoking or other risk factors in the environment, while cervical cancer is most often caused by a previous HPV infection.
No matter what kind of cancer you had, if you are interested in knowing about whether you should get genetic testing, you should feel empowered to talk with your primary care provider or oncology team.
You can also make an appointment with the Hereditary Cancer Screening and Risk Reduction Program by calling (585) 486-0609. A referral is not required to meet with a genetics expert from the program. During your first visit, a provider will go over family history and make recommendations for, or against, genetic testing based on your specific situation at that time.
What are the benefits for genetic testing in cancer survivors?
Genetic testing is recommended for many cancer types, even if you are a cancer survivor. Some individuals with a genetic predisposition to cancer (also called pathogenic variants) may be at risk for other cancer types or a recurrence of their first cancer and should be watched more carefully than those with average risk. You may need more frequent cancer screenings for some types of cancer if you are found to have a genetic mutation tied to particular types of cancer.
Genetic testing information is also helpful for family members. If you test positive for a genetic predisposition to cancer, all of your first-degree relatives (parents, siblings and children) have a 50% chance of also having the same genetic predisposition. They should be informed of your genetic predisposition to cancer and offered genetic testing to determine their own risk.
Can you get genetic testing even if you are many years out from your diagnosis?
Yes! Even if you are several years removed from your cancer diagnosis, if you meet criteria for genetic testing, you should consider it to inform your own risk as well as to inform your family members of their risk.
Is it possible you might need to get genetic testing done more than once in your life as a cancer survivor?
Yes. Genetic testing is constantly changing and evolving as researchers learn more information about the human genome. New genes are added to genetic testing panels as more information is identified. Individuals who had genetic testing before 2014 should discuss updating genetic testing with a panel. Those who have had testing are recommended to check in about any updates to genetic testing every three to five years to ensure they do not need more testing.
How do I get genetic testing?
Talk to your doctor or oncologist about your personal and family history and ask about genetic testing. You can also call the Hereditary Cancer Screening and Risk Reduction Program at (585) 486-0609 and schedule an appointment to discuss genetic testing. A referral is not necessary. Learn more about the genetic testing.