Should I see an oncology genetic counselor?

Apr 7, 2022

The Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion has two genetic counselors to help you learn if you are at a higher risk of cancer due to your genes

We all know smoking can lead to lung cancer; frequent sun exposure can cause skin cancer. But there are a percentage of cancers not caused by lifestyle or environment. Instead, it’s due to mutations in our genes we naturally inherit from our family.

There’s no need to be mad at grandma or dad. Certain people are born with a predisposition, a genetic mutation that puts them at higher risk of getting cancer. How do you know if you are one of these people? Genetic testing.

Cancer is a genetic disease in that it is caused by certain changes to genes that control the way our cells function, especially how they grow and divide. About 75 to 85 percent of cancer is sporadic and due to certain lifestyle or environmental factors or aging. However, inherited genetic mutations play a role in the remaining percentage of cancer cases.

LCRP Genetic Counselor Sunaina Kapur

To help our cancer patients and their family members better understand DNA and cancer, the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion has two genetic counselors, Sunaina Kapur and Jacob South.

“A genetic counselor is a healthcare provider who meets with someone to help the patient better understand their risk for certain conditions,” explains Kapur. “We specifically offer counseling and testing related to hereditary cancer to allow the patient to understand if they are at an increased risk for a certain cancer or tumor, and if so, what are the different management and screenings they can do to be more proactive.”

To become a genetic counselor, you must complete a two to three year Master’s program in genetic counseling or human genetics and then pass a board exam to become certified.

Who should see a genetic counselor?

Our genetic counselors meet with individuals already diagnosed with cancer or individuals with a family history of cancer who meet criteria that they may be at greater risk of one day developing cancer. Your oncologist or primary care physician can refer you to our genetic counseling program or you can self-referral by simply calling our office (912-819-8679).

Our genetic counselors do not meet with every single cancer patient, as some cancers are less likely caused by genetic mutations. Skin (except melanoma) and lung are often caused by lifestyle and environmental factors.

However, there are certain cancers that are more hereditary than others. For example, if you have any family history of ovarian cancer, you automatically meet criteria for genetic testing, Kapur says. That’s because about one in five, or 20 percent, of ovarian cancers are hereditary. Other common hereditary cancers include breast, pancreatic, prostate, stomach, colon and some thyroid related cancers.

So it’s not just females who need to be aware of this, Kapur advises. She encourages anyone with a large family history of cancer to consider genetic counseling.

Related Article: Should I have my genes tested if my mother or grandmother had breast or ovarian cancer?

What to expect during the meeting?

Your experience starts with a patient packet that asks many questions about your medical history and family history. As best you can, we want to know any cancers or diseases in your family. It’s also helpful to know how and at what age your deceased relatives passed away. We closely look at the medical history of children, siblings, parents and grandparents.

When it’s time to meet with a genetic counselor, you will go over the packet together. They may ask further questions as well, Kapur says. Females, for example, will be asked about the number of children they’ve had and age of first period and menopause.

“Then based on that, we’ll talk about testing, and what could be beneficial to them, and what potentially we could find, and then what they could change about their screening,” Kapur says.

It’s important to note, not everyone who sees a genetic counselor may choose to be tested.

“We do not force people to get tested. It’s more about facilitating that conversation and starting you to think about whether or not it is meant for you in the future,” Kapur says. “Not everyone wants to know and that’s completely OK. I think it’s better to see the information we share so you can make a well informed decision.”

Nor does testing positive automatically mean you’re going to get cancer.

“Whether you are young or later in life, it helps to start or increase screening to be proactive about your health,” Kapur says. “Testing positive doesn’t mean you are going to develop cancer. It just means there are certain risk numbers associated with it. It’s always good to live a healthy lifestyle, but you could increase mammograms, add a breast MRI or increase colonoscopies or even preventative surgeries.”

If you do choose to get tested, you will do so the same day you meet with a genetic counselor. If it’s an in-person meeting most frequently you will be sent to a nearby lab for a blood test. If it’s a telehealth visit, we’ll send you a saliva kit. Both are just as accurate, Kapur says. Results typically take two to three weeks.

If you test negative, one of our counselors will call you to discuss the results. If it’s positive, you will meet with the counselor to discuss the results and next steps.

“Genetic counseling is big now, but it’s also going to be a big part of the future,” Kapur says. “This can help us catch cancer earlier and also help future generations in your family as well to be proactive.”

If you are interested in our genetic counseling program, talk to your physician or call us at 912-819-8679.

How can we help you?