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Genetic counseling translates scientific knowledge into practical and understandable information for patients. Genetic counseling is an opportunity for a trained genetics professional to talk with a family about what conditions are in their family, what the patient would like to understand, what he or she is worried might be "running in the family" and learn about testing options. The genetic counselor can assist patients and their physicians in determining if genetic testing will be beneficial.
Cancer is a genetic disease caused by the accumulation over time of mutations (changes) in critical genes that control the way cells grow. We are all born with genes that are designed to ward off cancer. For most of us, over time, due to lifetime exposures, these genes can change and not work correctly. When enough of these changes have happened, cancer can develop. Rarely people are born with a change in a gene that works to ward off cancer. Thus these people have already (at birth) taken the first step toward developing cancer. They therefore have a higher chance to develop cancer, possibly at a younger age, or possibly more than one cancer. This is only true though for about 10% of individuals with cancer themselves, or in their family. Those are the families where genetic testing may be important.
The field of cancer genetic counseling is relatively new. Genes that predispose a person to cancer were only identified in the early 1990s. At Virginia Mason Memorial, genetic counselors play a key role in the cancer risk assessment team through North Star Lodge.
Cancer risk consultation involves the following:
- Collecting and confirming information about personal and family history of cancer
- Identifying the risk of developing cancer
- Determining ways in which cancer risk can be modified
- Determining if genetic testing might be helpful
Reviewing the family and medical history allows the genetic counselor to estimate the chance that there might be an inherited predisposition to cancer syndrome in the family and if testing might be helpful. Genetic testing is not helpful for all patients. The genetic counselor can help the patient decide if testing would be appropriate for them. If the patient elects to proceed with testing, the genetic counselor will make all the arrangements, including discussion of cost and insurance coverage and then meet with the patient to discuss the results. Results can be used to plan an appropriate monitoring program to try and reduce the risk of cancer returning.
Oncology patients at North Star Lodge have access to highly trained genetic counselors that can assist in the discussion of testing and treatment options. Virginia Mason Memorial is pleased to provide genetic counselors who are experts in the field of cancer genetics and who work closely with other cancer genetics specialists in the Pacific Northwest. Visit the Virginia Mason Memorial genetic counseling website for additional information.