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Genetic Counseling Services

Researchers are just starting to figure out how people can inherit cancer risk.

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 a cell's genes, the cell stops listening to the body. It then reproduces itself uncontrollably, growing into — what we call — a cancer.

What We Know About Genes and Cancer Risk

Some people inherit DNA changes in a cancer-associated gene from their parents.

A change in just one cancer-associated gene won't cause cancer by itself. And, having an altered cancer-associated gene doesn't mean you're certain to get cancer.

For a cell to become cancerous, it requires changes to the DNA of a number of genes. These changes required for cancer to develop may not ever occur.

But, this inherited DNA change does place you at a higher-than-average risk of certain types of cancer. Taking preventive steps can help you lower your cancer risk.

How Cancer Genetics Experts Can Help

Meeting with a genetic counselor at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center can help you:

  • Learn your cancer risks or those of your children.
  • Find out if inheritance played a role in the cause of your cancer or a family member's cancer.
  • Obtain facts about cancer screening tests — such as mammography or colonoscopy — and how often you should have these tests.
  • Make decisions about the use of hormone replacement therapy or preventive surgery.
  • Check the feasibility of genetic (DNA) testing for cancer-predisposing genes.

Who's a Candidate for Genetic Cancer Testing?

Many families do not display the more common familial cancer patterns. Because of this, only 10 percent of people are good candidates for genetic tests.

For the rest, a close review of your family tree to look for relatives who have had cancer may be an effective way of learning your cancer risk.

About Genetic Cancer Tests

Many assume that genetic testing — taking blood or tissue samples to look for DNA changes linked to disease — is all there is to cancer genetics.

While genetic tests are vital tools in cancer risk assessment, they're not the only tools and aren't for everyone.

Limits of genetic testing

Specific DNA-based tests find genetic changes related to certain familial cancer patterns. But, these tests have their limitations.

For example, a person who tests:

  • Positive for a cancer-associated DNA change has an increased risk, but doesn't necessarily mean that he or she will develop cancer.
  • Negative for such DNA changes has a normal risk and may end up getting cancer.

If you find out that you're genetically predisposed to cancer, discuss your genetic test results with your doctor or genetic counselor. They can explain what the results mean, and what steps you can take to prevent cancer.

To make an appointment with a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center genetic counselor, call 1-800-454-8156.