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The Cancer Genetic Counseling Program

Many people worry about cancer risk for themselves or their children, especially if cancer runs in their family.  About 5-10% of cancer is hereditary, meaning that it is caused by a non-working gene being passed through a family.  Family members who carry the non-working gene have a higher than average chance to develop cancer.  Reviewing the frequently asked questions (FAQs) below and having a discussion with your doctors may help you to decide whether genetic counseling for cancer risk is appropriate for you.


Who should consider genetic counseling for cancer risk?

Anyone with a personal or family history of:

  • Cancer that occurred at a younger age than usual

              Examples – breast or colon cancer diagnosed less than age 50

  • Multiple individuals with the same cancer or related cancers

              Examples – breast and ovarian cancer, colon and uterine cancer

  • Rare cancers such as male breast cancer, fallopian tube cancer and certain childhood cancers

              Other examples – adrenocortical carcinoma, choroid plexus carcinoma, medullary thyroid cancer

  • More than one primary (new) cancer in an individual including bilateral cancer of paired organs

              Examples – sarcoma and breast cancer, cancer in both kidneys

  • Multiple benign (non-cancerous) tumors or polyps
  • A known mutation in a cancer predisposition gene

              Example - positive BRCA1 or BRCA2 test results

What does genetic counseling for cancer risk involve?

Genetic counseling usually involves two office visits, an initial one to two hour consultation and a shorter follow-up visit (for those individuals who choose to undergo genetic testing).

The genetic counselor will:

  • Review your medical history
  • Collect and analyze your family history information
  • Tell you what the chances are that the cancer in your family is hereditary
  • Review information about the genetics of cancer
  • Discuss options for cancer screening and risk reduction
  • Review the pros and cons of genetic testing, if applicable
  • Arrange genetic testing and interpret genetic test results for those who choose that option
  • Discuss the latest advances in the field of cancer genetics
  • Identify other resources for interested patients (e.g. other health care professionals or support groups)

The genetic counselor will answer all of your questions regarding cancer risk and genetic testing and will tailor the consultation to your individual needs and concerns.

If I have genetic counseling, do I have to have genetic testing?

No.  The genetic counselor will help you to decide if genetic testing is right for you.  Individuals who do not have genetic testing can still learn valuable information about managing their cancer risk.

Do I still need genetic counseling if I’ve already had genetic testing?

Anyone considering genetic testing for cancer risk should be offered the option of genetic counseling by a health care professional trained in cancer genetics.  This is suggested to ensure that a full cancer risk assessment is performed, the correct genetic test(s) are offered, and the various medical, psychosocial, and familial issues that surround genetic testing are addressed.  For many people, genetic counseling after genetic testing is helpful because it provides an opportunity to address or re-address these issues.  The genetic counselor may also provide you with additional educational and/or support materials/referrals and will serve as a resource for any future questions or concerns.

How often do I need to re-contact my genetic counselor?

You should re-contact your genetic counselor every two to three years to update your medical and family history and to inquire about advances in the field of cancer genetics.  You should contact the counselor sooner if there are any major changes to your medical or family history such as a new diagnosis of cancer or if any of your relatives undergo genetic testing for cancer risk.