Cancer Care

Hereditary Cancer: Do You Know Your Risk?

When Jen Hazel’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time 10 years ago at age 66, she wondered whether there may be some hereditary reason for her disease. Her mom decided to undergo genetic testing to see if her daughters might be at risk.

“They didn’t find any evidence of hereditary disease,” said Jen, who works as a nurse navigator in Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center’s Breast Care Center. “But back then, they really only tested for two known genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2. My mom didn’t have either.”

Jen Hazel's aunt, Wilma Rankin, was recently diagnosed
with breast cancer. Testing for hereditary cancers found
she carried a known genetic marker for breast cancer.

Fast forward to today, and another diagnosis of breast cancer in Jen’s family. Knowing the advances that had been made in hereditary risk assessment, Jen urged her 69-year old aunt to undergo genetic testing. 

“With the advancement of genetic testing there is always more to learn and grow,” Jen said. “Any information we can get along the way to help in early detection and prevention is beneficial for our families.”

Jen’s hunch was right. There was another gene that put her aunt at an increased risk for cancer that wasn’t discovered 10 years ago. Her aunt carried it.

Helping you understand hereditary risk

Ann Burch, BSN, RN, OCN, manages the Cancer Prevention and Hereditary Risk Program at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. She has worked with Jen and her aunt in assessing the family’s genetic risk.

“The biggest reason for having genetic testing is cancer prevention and early detection,” Burch said. “Most cancers are highly treatable if found early. If you know you carry a genetic marker, you can begin the conversation with a doctor to determine your next steps. Having a hereditary cancer risk assessment gives you the information to make the health care choices that are right for you.”

What’s involved in a hereditary cancer risk assessment?

Every hereditary cancer risk assessment begins with completing a Family Cancer History Questionnaire. This questionnaire gives a broad view of your family’s cancer history – starting with your closest relatives.

“It’s important to know who had the cancer, regardless of if they were male or female, what type of cancer, and at what approximate age they were diagnosed,” Burch said. “Anything younger than 50 is considered a red flag.”

Once your questionnaire is complete, you'll meet with members of the Methodist Cancer Prevention and Hereditary Risk Program, including a board-certified, licensed genetic counselor. The counselor will explain your results and discuss your options, including emotional support services. Your assessment and initial consultation are free.

What will I learn from the hereditary cancer risk assessment?

It’s important to know that just because one or more your relatives had cancer, it doesn’t mean you automatically have a genetic marker. About 90-95 percent of cancers are considered sporadic – meaning they don’t carry a hereditary risk. However, some cancers may have a strong family tie, including:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Ovarian cancer

The assessment will provide information on your risk of developing these or other cancers. You will learn:

  • How to reduce your cancer risk
  • How to prevent the onset of cancer
  • How to detect cancer early, when treatment is most effective

“If you test positive for a genetic marker, we give you not only information about what this means, but also a referral on who to see and our recommendations,” Burch said. “Many times patients already have a provider in mind based on their family members’ experiences.”

Jen Hazel and her daughter.

Knowing is half the battle

In Jen’s case, she hasn’t had a hereditary risk assessment completed yet, but now that she knows about her aunt’s genetic markers, she’s making it a point to get tested. 

“Having the test would give me some knowledge of my increased risks for certain cancers,” Jen said. “Each genetic marker has an outline of standards – recommendations for screenings and possibly risk reduction surgeries to help with early detection and prevention.”

As a Methodist breast cancer nurse navigator, she takes comfort in knowing she’s already in good hands with the best providers at her side.

“The team here is the best,” Jen said. “I feel confident that we are providing ladies with breast cancer the best support and care. I have the opportunity to see firsthand what patients experience physically, mentally and spiritually, and it’s opened my eyes to the whole process.”

Read more about the importance of knowing your family's medical history.