Get The Facts About Genetic Testing For Cancer

HARTFORD, Conn., October 14, 2008 — With so much information in the news these days about genetic testing for cancer, how do you know if you should get tested? Or what kind of test to get, or whether it's covered by your insurance?

"The availability of genetic tests, especially in the area of predicting your risk of getting cancer, is increasing. If you are considering having a genetic test, it's important to talk to trained medical professionals, such as genetic counselors, in addition to checking other credible resources," said Joanne Armstrong, MD, a senior medical director at Aetna (NYSE: AET) who leads Aetna's women's health program. Dr. Armstrong also is a consultant to several national organizations on genetics. "The decision to seek genetic testing should be considered carefully by you and your family. 

"Some questions to ask yourself before you get tested include:

"One way to think about genetic testing is to understand whether the results of those tests can help you, your family and your doctor make better health care decisions," she said.

Consumers often have some common misconceptions on this topic. It's important to get the facts on genetic testing.
Myth: A genetic test will tell me if I will develop cancer.
Certain mutations in genes are linked to a higher risk of certain cancers. For example, research on inherited breast and ovarian cancer has focused on flaws in two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Genetic tests can show whether a person has one of these mutations and is at an increased risk of developing one of these diseases. However, having a higher risk of cancer does not necessarily mean you will develop the disease. Therefore, the test cannot predict if you actually will develop cancer.

Myth: A negative genetic test will ensure that I do not develop cancer.
Most cancers are not due to an inherited genetic defect. According to the American Cancer Society, most women with breast cancer don't have a first-degree relative with the disease. In fact, being a woman is the greatest risk factor for breast cancer. Similarly, most individuals who develop colorectal cancer do not have a family history of cancer. That's why it is important for everyone - including individuals who undergo one of these tests and are found not to have a defect in one of these genes -- to get recommended preventive and early detection screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies.

Myth: There is nothing I can do to change my risk of developing an inherited cancer, so why get tested?
While you cannot change the genetic makeup of the family you were born into, there are steps that individuals at risk for inherited cancer can take to reduce their risk of developing cancer, or to identify it at an early stage so that treatments have the best chances of working. For example, individuals at genetic risk for breast cancer are recommended to have screening exams with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the breast in addition to mammography. Individuals with a genetic risk of colorectal cancer are recommended to start screening colonoscopy at an earlier age than is recommended for people at average risk.

Myth: I have a healthy lifestyle, so I'm not at risk of inherited breast cancer.
Healthy habits like exercise, a proper diet, not smoking and getting appropriate medical checkups are important steps to prevent or detect cancer early. However, you still may be at risk for inherited cancer if there is a pattern of cancer in your family. Talk to a trained medical professional such as a genetics counselor to find out if genetic testing is right for you.

Myth: There's enough information available about genetics in the news and online that I can make my own decision about testing. 
  The field of genetics is new and complex. It's important to be well-informed, but it's also smart to work with a medical professional to understand what information is credible and how it applies to you. You are more likely to get appropriate genetic testing and guidance if you consult with a clinician experienced in genetics such as a genetic counselor or medical geneticist. Some, but not all doctors are comfortable providing genetic counseling. You also can find genetic counselors near you by visiting the National Society of Genetic Counselors website at

Myth: Once I have the test, my decisions about treatment options will be clear.
Genetic test answers aren't always simple to explain. Even if a gene mutation is discovered, other factors such as medical or family history can influence the chances that an individual will or will not develop cancer. It's important to talk with a trained clinician to determine what follow-up options make sense for you.

Myth: Insurance companies do not cover genetic tests.
Coverage of a genetic test can vary by insurance company. Some insurance companies cover genetic tests and some do not. Check your insurance policy or call your insurer's member services department to understand what your plan does or does not cover. 

For additional resources, consider the following:

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