Published on May 26, 2021

A geneticist talking with patients.

Genetic risk assessment puts you in the driver’s seat

The UW Health Cancer Center at ProHealth Care provides comprehensive genetic services for people who may have hereditary factors that can contribute to cancer. The services are designed to help patients make cancer treatment decisions and to help family members identify ways to reduce their potential risk of cancer.

"Knowing that you have a hereditary risk of cancer does not mean you’re pre-destined to have cancer," said Christopher Hake, MD, the hematologist and medical oncologist who leads the cancer genetic risk assessment program for ProHealth. "We help people learn why a type of cancer is present within a family and what we can do to stop it."

Genetic testing can help predict whether someone is at higher risk for certain types of cancer. It allows individuals and families to gain insight into why cancer occurs in a family and what can be done to reduce cancer risks.

Among those who may benefit from genetic tests are people who have a family member who has had a rare cancer, a cancer diagnosis at a relatively young age, or more than one type of cancer, as well as those who have a gene mutation. Cancer patients, survivors and members of families in which multiple people have had cancer may also want to learn about testing options.

The cost of genetic testing has significantly decreased in recent years, making it more accessible. Testing may even be available at no charge to additional family members if a gene mutation is found.

Genetic services are tailored for each patient, depending on their needs. Initial and follow-up consultations allow time for detailed questions and answers. Support and guidance are at the forefront of care.

"Most people first want to know whether genetic testing is right for them," said Margo Grady, ProHealth’s senior genetic counselor. "We explain the process, the types of findings available, and the benefits, limitations and risks. It’s important to discuss what genetic tests might mean for a patient and for their family members."

Patients receive information about the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, a federal law that prevents discrimination in employment and health insurance based on genetic testing results. ProHealth genetic counselors also help patients assess their insurance coverage for genetic services and explain any out-of-pocket costs.

During a cancer genetic risk assessment, a genetic counselor will:

  • Review your family medical history.
  • Discuss the role genes play in causing cancer.
  • Help you understand your risk of developing cancer.
  • Talk to you about the potential emotional affect test results could have on you and your family.
  • Help you decide whether to pursue genetic testing and recommend which test is best for you.
  • Partner with people who wish to move forward with testing to develop a personalized plan.

Based on your test results, the cancer genetics team may work with you to create a customized screening program, offer dietary and lifestyle recommendations to reduce cancer risks, and help with more targeted, personalized treatment options as needed.

ProHealth’s genetic professionals are part of a large, locally-based cancer care team that includes nursing and dietary professionals, radiologists, oncologists, advanced practice providers, pharmacologists, counselors and specially trained surgeons. Your primary care provider is also an important member of the team.

"We can help you reduce the risk as much as possible, with the goal of prevention – and early treatment if that might be necessary at some point in the future," Dr. Hake said. "Knowledge is important. Cancer care is advancing rapidly. The more we know about you, the more we can help you."