Genetic Testing for Cancer Risk: What You Need to Know

Most of us have at least one or two family members who've had cancer, according to Otis Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. But that doesn't mean you're next: Only 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are caused by an inherited gene defect. Fill out this simple checklist of family-history red flags to decide whether genetic testing is right for you.

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If you didn't check any boxes?

You can breathe easy. You're unlikely to be at increased risk for a hereditary cancer, so there's no need to undergo genetic testing. Keep in mind, up to 90 percent of cancers occur in people with no known genetic mutations, so it's still important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and keep up with routine screenings, such as skin checks and Pap smears.

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If you checked one box?

Tell your doctor during your next exam and ask if you should see a genetic counselor; she can help you make a call based on which list item you checked and on your answers to other questions. Was the family member with cancer tested for mutations, for instance, and at what age was she diagnosed?

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If you checked two or more boxes?

"See a genetic counselor, who will review your history to see if testing is necessary," says Rebecca Nagy, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. (Find one at Affected relatives should be tested first, since there's a stronger likelihood they have a mutation.

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Fortunately, a single blood test can check for mutations for several common genetically linked cancers. If you know a relative carries a mutation but you test negative for it, your risk is the same as the general population's. But if no one in your family with cancer has a known mutation, there might still be some other unknown mutation in your family tree. Ask your counselor and doc about proactive measures such as more frequent screening.

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About the Author

Hallie Levine

SELF gives you great advice on being healthy, happy, slimmer, fitter and less stressed.

SELF gives you great advice on being healthy, happy, slimmer, fitter and less stressed.

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