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Genetic testing to determine your cancer risk: The good, the bad and the rest of the story

Genetic testing to determine your cancer risk can help inform your health care decisions.
Cancer genetic testing looks for harmful changes (mutations) in these inherited genes that cause them to malfunction. People with a harmful mutation in one of their “cancer genes” are more likely to develop cancer.
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So, you’re considering genetic testing to identify your cancer risk. What will the test tell you?

We inherit two copies of every gene in our bodies; one from our mother and one from our father. Genes direct how the body grows and functions. Each gene has a specific job to do. Some genes protect our cells from growing out of control and becoming cancerous. Cancer genetic testing looks for harmful changes (mutations) in these inherited genes that cause them to malfunction. People with a harmful mutation in one of their “cancer genes” are more likely to develop cancer.

The Good:
Genetic testing may identify an inherited harmful gene mutation that explains the cancer in you and/or your family members. This opens the door for other family members to be tested for the same gene mutation.

Genetic testing may better define your risk for developing cancer.

  • A positive test result identifies which gene is not working and gives clues about which cancers are most likely to develop. For example, a mutation in the BRCA1 gene is known to increase risks for breast, ovarian and prostate cancers.
  • Defining your cancer risk enables you to be proactive about cancer screening, surveillance and prevention.

If there is a known gene mutation in your family, a negative test result means that you did not inherit the gene mutation. In most cases, this means you are not at an increased risk for developing cancer.

The bottom line? Detecting cancer—or precancerous conditions—early is key to prevention or effective treatment. Knowing your risk allows you to take a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to your health.

To learn more about genetic testing, or to make an appointment for genetic counseling or our cancer risk management program, please visit our website

The Bad:
Genetic testing cannot always give a clear answer to whether you or your family members are at increased risk for cancer. This uncertainty can cause frustration or worry. Likewise, knowing about an increased risk for cancer can cause worry or stress for you or your family members.

Cancer genetic testing affects the whole family. Family members may have different preferences about knowing their cancer risks.

The Rest of the Story:
Genetic testing is always changing and improving as we learn more about how genes are related to cancer. Anyone with a personal or family history of cancer should check in periodically with their physician or genetic counselor for the most current testing recommendations.

The decision whether or not to have genetic testing is not always straightforward. Meeting with a genetic counselor can provide you with information about hereditary cancer, can help assess your risk for cancer and can help you decide if genetic testing is right for you.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care services.

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