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Genetic Counseling Services

About Genetic Counseling Services at UPMC CancerCenter

Researchers are just beginning to understand how cancer risk can be inherited. Normally, certain genes protect the body from cancer by controlling how cells grow and react to the body's signals. When DNA changes accumulate in several of these genes in a cell, the cell stops listening to the body and reproduces itself uncontrollably, growing into what we call a cancer.

Some people inherit changes in a cancer-associated gene from their parents. Since the DNA of a number of genes needs to be altered for a cell to become cancerous, an alteration in just one cancer-associated gene won't cause cancer by itself. However, such an inherited DNA change places people who have it one step closer to cancer. Their risk of certain types of cancer is higher than average.

Having an altered cancer-associated gene does not necessarily mean that you will develop cancer. The additional changes necessary for cancer to develop may not occur. What is more, taking preventive steps also can lower your cancer risk.

How Cancer Genetics Experts Can Help

Having an evaluation with a genetic counselor can help you to:

Genetic Tests

Many assume that genetic testing — where blood or tissue samples are tested to identify DNA changes associated with disease — is all there is to cancer genetics. While genetic tests are important tools in cancer risk assessment, they are not the only tool and are not for everyone.

Limitations

Specific DNA-based tests are available to identify genetic changes associated with certain familial cancer patterns. However, these tests have their limitations.

A test that shows a cancer-associated DNA change in one person doesn't necessarily mean that he or she will develop cancer. On the other hand, a person who tests negative for such changes has a normal risk and may develop cancer.

Discuss your genetic test results with your doctor or genetic counselor to understand what the results mean, and what steps you can take to prevent cancer, if you are found to be genetically predisposed.

Appropriate candidates

Many families do not exhibit the more common familial cancer patterns. Because of this, only 10 percent of patients are appropriate candidates for genetic tests.

For the rest, a close examination of your family tree to identify relatives who have developed cancer may be an effective way of determining cancer risk.