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Genetic Counseling & Risk Assessment

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

Genetic counseling

Consulting with an expert in cancer genetics is the best way to ensure receiving the most up-to-date and credible information. Genetic counseling consists of one or more appointments with a genetics expert in-person, by telephone or by video. The first genetic counseling session usually involves an in-depth discussion of the following: 

  • Reviewing the family medical history 
  • Assessing and explaining risk for hereditary cancers and the chance of finding a mutation through genetic testing
  • Discussing the benefits and limitations of genetic testing
  • Outlining available medical management options
  • Determining which family members may be appropriate for genetic testing 
  • Addressing common concerns about the privacy and confidentiality of personal genetic information

The genetic counselor will want to know family medical history going back three generations, including:

  • Who in the family has been diagnosed with cancer and who has not
  • Primary site of the cancers (for example, began in the breast and spread to the brain), this may require a copy of original pathology reports if available
  • Age of onset for any cancers in the family
  • Current ages of living family members and the ages at death of those who are deceased
  • Any other family health information you feel may be important or unusual

Once they evaluate your personal and family medical history, a genetic counselor will discuss other tools that may further clarify your risk for cancer, including genetic testing. A genetic counselor will not try to talk you into or out of testing but will discuss its benefits, risks, costs, and limitations.

If you decide to proceed with genetic testing, the counselor will:

  • Fill out the paperwork and assure that the proper test is ordered.
  • Work with your insurance and the testing facility to assure coverage for the test or help you find resources for low-cost testing if insurance won't pay.
  • Collect either blood or a cheek swab sample for the test and submit it to the appropriate laboratory.

Once your results have returned from the lab, the counselor will schedule a post-test disclosure apppointment. This appointment is important; the genetic counselor will:

  • Interpret and explain test results and what they mean for you and your relatives
  • Provide you with your cancer risk estimates based on your test results
  • Outline appropriate cancer risk management and treatment options
  • Provide referrals to for follow-up screening and risk management, and suggest any relevant clinical trials
  • Identify which relatives may also be at high-risk and provide you with information to share with relatives
  • Address common concerns about the privacy and confidentiality of personal genetic information

If you are considering genetic counseling or genetic testing and need help getting started, FORCE's Peer Navigation Program will match you with a specially trained volunteer who will provide 1:1 personalized peer support and expert reviewed resources. You can also call FORCE's Toll-free Helpline and speak with a genetics expert volunteer who can answer general questions and help you find a genetics expert near you. You can also visit this page to find a genetics expert near you. 

Updated 01/07/2018

FORCE:Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered