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A Consumer's Guide to Genetic Testing & Cancer

Publication: Healthy Magazine, McAllen

It's a new year - a time for setting goals to take control of your health. From making better nutrition choices to joining a gym - new year health goals run the gamut.

You also may be thinking about genetic testing to learn about your family history and cancer risk. With low-cost, direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits now available, it’s easier than ever to peek inside your DNA.

While genetic testing can provide invaluable insight, evaluating cancer risk properly is complicated. Direct-to-consumer genetic tests – also known as DTC, at-home DNA testing, or online genetic testing – differ from clinical genetic testing directed by a healthcare provider or genetic counselor, and should only be a viewed as a small piece to a much greater puzzle.

Here are some things to keep in mind.

Risks and Limitations

Genetic testing identifies changes – or mutations – in a person’s genes. But not all changes are harmful, and results are not a simple “normal” or “abnormal.”

Direct-to-consumer genetic tests have limitations. When a genetic test is performed in a clinical setting, healthcare providers and genetic counselors review your personal and family medical history to determine which genetic test and testing laboratory is right for you. Direct-to-consumer testing rarely includes a comprehensive analysis of hereditary cancer genes, which means you could be missing out on important details about your cancer risks.

A personalized medical evaluation with a genetic counselor or healthcare provider who specializes in genetics is the best approach.

Without considering lifestyle choices, external and environmental factors, family medical history and more, it’s impossible to make a properly informed decision about cancer risk management.


When genetic testing is ordered by a healthcare provider with specialized training in genetics, lab results are sent directly to that expert, who then evaluates and reviews them with the patient. Direct- to-consumer genetic tests skip this important step. Patients can be left wondering how to decipher the results, which can be misunderstood and cause unnecessary worry or false reassurance.

When tests reveal a gene mutation, counseling is essential. Professionally trained genetic counselors can help determine the best path forward, including referring patients to groups that offer needed emotional support. It can be difficult to cope with learning you are at a higher risk for inherited cancer. Counseling helps families make fully informed medical and lifestyle decisions as part of a comprehensive program. The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) Position Statement on direct-to-consumer testing affirms that companies that offer direct access to genetic testing have a responsibility to offer consumers easy access and/or referrals to appropriate resources and qualified genetics professionals, such as genetic counselors.

Not all tests are equal

There are key differences in direct-to-consumer genetic tests currently on the market. Some focus on genetic traits and target people interested in learning about their ancestry. Others are geared toward identifying scientific genetic information and, in conjunction with laboratories, more accurately provide medical data, such as a person’s relative cancer risk. The differences, limitations and risks of both types of tests are important. A healthcare provider can guide you through this complex process of test selection, result interpretation and medical management.

Genetic testing can foster early detection and save lives, but evaluating cancer risk is not a DIY activity. Many of our cancer centers provide an in-depth assessment for patients with a personal or family history of cancer. We can help you determine if genetic testing is right for you.

Guillermo Lazo, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–McAllen, 1901 S. 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.

To learn more about exciting advancements in cancer treatment, visit www.TexasOncology.com or call 1-888-864-I CAN (4226).

Click here to read the full story from Healthy Magazine.

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