Misconceptions & Misunderstandings About Genetic Testing For Hereditary Cancer: My family history of cancer almost guarantees that one day I will develop cancer

May 04, 2013

By Robert Resta
Genetic Counselor

Many people who have a family history of cancer often assume that they are at high risk of developing cancer and do not see the value of genetic counseling and genetic testing. The reasoning often goes like this:

“My mother, my cousin, and my grandmother all had breast cancer. I know there is a very high chance that I will develop it too. I would never have a mastectomy, so I am extra good about getting mammograms and my doctor checks my breasts every time I see her. I have a healthy diet, exercise regularly, rarely drink alcohol, and I have never put a cigarette to my lips. Since I am already doing everything I can possibly do, I don’t see how genetic counseling and genetic testing can help me.”


Of course, it is a good idea to be conscientious about your medical care, and everyone should maintain a healthy lifestyle, regardless of family history. The questions that genetic testing may answer for you are:

  1. Are you really at high risk of developing cancer? Genetic testing and genetic counseling might reveal that your cancer risk is much lower than you thought.
  2. Are your current cancer screening practices adequate? For example, mammograms and physical exams may not be the best screening strategy for you. Other women may mistakenly believe that their pap smear will screen them for ovarian cancer (a pap smear is designed to detect cervical cancer but not ovarian cancer).
  3. Are you at increased risk of developing other cancers? Women with a family history of breast cancer may be at higher risk of developing other cancers, and may need screening for these other cancers.

Genetic counseling and genetic testing can help you develop a more accurate understanding of your cancer risks, and what you and your family can do to reduce the chances of getting cancer or detecting it as early as possible. The Hereditary Cancer Clinic at Swedish provides genetic counseling and genetic testing to cancer patients and their families. You can learn more about the Hereditary Cancer Clinic here. To learn more about genetic counseling, visit the website of the National Society of Genetic Counselors: www.nsgc.org.