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Genetic Testing for Hereditary Cancer

Learn about genes and cancer, signs of hereditary cancer, genetic counseling, types of genetic tests and what results mean for you and your family.

Benefits and limitations of genetic testing

Genetic testing for gene mutations associated with hereditary cancer can provide important medical information for the person undergoing the testing and for his or her family members. Some benefits of genetic testing for women already diagnosed with cancer include:

  • It can help women diagnosed with breast cancer make treatment decisions such as whether to undergo lumpectomy and radiation or bilateral mastectomy.
  • It can help women diagnosed with cancer understand their risk for a second, new cancer and make informed risk management decisions.
  • It can alert the patient to risks of other cancers.
  • It can help family members who have not had cancer better understand their risk for cancer. Testing someone with cancer in the family first increases the likelihood of an informative genetic test result.

Some benefits of genetic testing for people who have not been diagnosed with cancer include:

  • Testing negative under certain circumstances may mean that the person did not inherit an elevated risk for cancer.
  • It can help people better understand and manage their cancer risk.

Geneitc testing is not right for everyone, and the test itself has limitations including: 

  • It does not always provide a simple "yes" or "no" answer about hereditary cancer risk within a family. There are test results that are "uninformative" which do not provide any additional information about a family's cancer risk
  • Not everyone is a candidate for genetic testing
  • Testing can be expensive if not covered by insurance

An expert in cancer genetics will explain the benefits and limitations further and determine whether or not genetic testing is appropriate and likely to give a person further information about his or her cancer risk.

Updated 12/30/16

FORCE:Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered