My mother went to a lecture on breast cancer and learned how important genetic screening is, especially now that they’ve discovered so many new genetic links. I’m healthy, and we don’t have breast cancer in my family history—but should I still get the genetic screening?


Maybe. Advances in genetic testing for many types of cancer over the past few years have uncovered valuable information for people concerned about their family history of cancer—but also, in some cases, for people with no family history of cancer. The tests are most likely to be helpful for people with…

  • A personal history of early-onset cancer…more than one primary cancer…or a rare cancer.
  • A family history of cancer where at least two people from one side of the family have had the same or a related kind of cancer.
  • Common cancer patterns in the family that may suggest an inherited factor—examples include breast, colon, pancreatic, prostate and ovarian cancer.

But even if you do not have a family history of cancer, genetic testing may still be worthwhile. As a genetic counselor, I can see the value even for those who are merely curious—as long as the results are put into the context of personal and family history. And there’s always the chance that something unexpected may be uncovered, allowing an opportunity to take steps to avert problems down the road. Before you have such testing, though, it’s important that you get help learning…

  • What information do I want to know?
  • Is genetic testing the best way to get that information?
  • How might the test results change what I do?

Bear in mind, also, that the current guidelines for reducing risk for cancer are based on data gleaned from families that have a strong history of cancer. It is not known whether the risk reduction strategies that have shown benefit for this population would have the same benefit for someone who doesn’t have a strong family history of cancer. This is one reason that genetic test results can present difficult choices.

That is where a genetic counselor can help—ideally, starting with deciding whether to get tested. A genetic counselor can help you realistically determine your likelihood of developing a cancer over your lifetime…discuss the various testing options…and explain the results in the context of your personal and family history. You can search for genetic counselors near you at

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