Health Break | Published August 4, 2008 | Written by Tara Baney, RN, MS, AOCN

Genetic Counseling To Find Cancer Risk

Did you know that rolling your tongue is an inherited trait from your parents?

All of us are made up of unique characteristics programmed by our genetic make up. Other than identical twins, everyone has a different genetic makeup. We inherit genes, structures that hold our genetic information, from each of our parents. These genes not only program things such as eye color or hair color but also help in the regulation of the different processes in our body.

The genes that we may or may not have inherited from our parents can cause certain types of cancer. These are called familial cancer syndromes and are not that common. Some familys genetic makeup includes gene/s that may increase their risk of some cancers such as: breast, colon, melanoma, endocrine tumors, retinoblastoma, renal cancers and ovarian cancers.

It is important for all of use to be aware of our familys medical histories. In families that may be a carrier of these genes, a particular type of cancer or several specific types may be extremely prevalent among relatives. For example in families that have the genetic makeup responsible for Von Hippel Lindau syndrome, there may be multiple family members with renal tumors, endocrine tumors and brain or ocular tumors.

Another example is a family that has multiple younger women who either have breast or ovarian cancers. This could be an indication that there may be a BRCA1/2 gene mutation within this familys genetic makeup.

When we see these types of familial traits, genetic counseling/testing maybe indicated. This process involves meeting with a genetic counselor who will explore a persons medical history and family medical history in great detail. This will allow the counselor to see if a pattern exists that may indicate further investigation. If the counselor feels that there maybe a genetic component involved in the development of cancers within a family, the next step would be genetic testing. This involves obtaining blood samples or tissue from the person undergoing testing so that the genetic material (DNA) can be reviewed and analyzed. If the person is found to have the genetic trait, other family members may need to undergo genetic counseling.

If the person is found to have a genetic predisposition to cancer, the genetic counselor will advise the person regarding the necessary steps. This may include further testing, more vigorous screening, or even treatment. For example, women found to have the BRCA1/2 mutation may need to undergo more frequent mammograms or other radiological exam. They also may be provided with the option of bilateral prophylactic mastectomies and bilateral removal of the ovaries for the prevention of breast or ovarian cancers in the future.

By having this information about ones family history, important medical decisions can be made to help detect cancers at an earlier stage or even prevent them with medical intervention. More information about genetic testing can be obtained at, or If you would like to see a genetic counselor, the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute at Mount Nittany Medical Center provides this service on a monthly basis. You can obtain an appointment by calling Maria Bakers, PhD, genetic counselor, at 717-531-1631 or 1-800-243-1455. If you have questions, please feel free to call Tara Baney, Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist at 231-7005.

Tara Baney, RN, MS, AOCN is an oncology clinical nurse specialist at Mount Nittany Medical Center.