How Genetic Testing Can Determine Your Cancer Risk

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Genetic testing is quickly evolving as more genes are discovered and the cost of the testing becomes cheaper. How do you know if it’s right for you? 

Just like eye and hair color, genes are passed along from our parents. Sometimes those genes can develop mutations, and if you inherit a gene linked to cancer you’re more likely to develop the disease — and at a younger age. 

"A genetic test can tell you if you carry a predisposition for certain cancers, such as such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer,” says Nykole Sutherland, a ‎Clinical Genetic Counselor at Intermountain. The test also helps suggest if other family members are at risk. 

If you have a family history of cancer you are a good candidate for genetic testing. Prior to the test, patients receive a referral to a genetic counselor by their physician. The counselor will provide a detailed risk assessment, which includes drawing a full family tree to determine if there are genetic signs of cancer. The genetic counselor helps patients know what to expect with the test, what the results mean, and the pros and cons of testing. 

What happens after the test?

A simple blood test is all that is required for a genetic test, but the results can have significant implications. "Unlike many blood tests, a genetic test can indicate that you might have relatives, such as your children or siblings, who are potentially at-risk," says Nykole. For example, if the result is positive, meaning a genetic change was found that is known to increase risk for cancers, the genetic counselor will go over the medical recommendations for cancer prevention and who else in the family should consider being tested. Examples of medical management recommendations for a breast gene (such as BRCA1 or BRCA2) might be that all the women in the family have breast MRIs in addition to breast mammograms. 


“Everyone has different risks, and the medical management is guided by what helps the patient feel empowered and safe,” says Nykole. While genetic testing cannot predict for certain if cancer will develop, it does provide information that can be used toward prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Nykole adds that while not all patients want be tested, genetic counselling is still helpful for any family member at risk, as each patient is provided with specialized cancer screening recommendations based on their family history. 

The future of testing

 "The role of genetics in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment will continue to gain importance at Intermountain," says Nykole. "In the future I expect that precision genomics will be an integrated part of cancer care." For more information about Intermountain Cancer Services visit here