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How Is Genetic Testing For Cancer Done?

Cancer is a serious disease. If you aren’t able to catch its early warning signs, it becomes increasingly difficult to treat this condition. The good news is that there are options that allow you to identify your risk for developing cancer early on so that you can prevent it from happening. One of these options is taking a genetic test.

Genetic tests are an important method of measuring your risk for cancer development over your lifetime. Feel free to continue reading our blog below as we discuss the following:

  1. What is genetic testing?

  2. Why would you take a genetic test for cancer?

  3. What happens during genetic testing for cancer?

  4. What are the benefits of genetic testing for cancer?

  5. When would you need to do genetic testing for cancer?

What Is Genetic Testing?

Genetic testing is the process of identifying variants or mutations in a person’s genes, chromosomes, or proteins that can affect the risk of developing certain diseases1,2. These risks can be harmful, beneficial, uncertain, unknown, or have no effect on the condition in question. According to the National Cancer Institute, harmful genetic variants are said to contribute to 5-10% of all types of cancer1. It’s important to note, though, that only a few people who have a gene mutation will develop cancer2.

In summary, the main purpose of a genetic test for cancer is to estimate your risk of developing cancer. While a genetic test won't provide a definitive answer on whether you will develop cancer or not, it can offer a valuable glimpse into how high your risk for developing it is.

Thanks to the technological advancements that have brought us to today, genetic tests can estimate your risk for a wide range of cancers2 including:

  • Breast cancer

  • Ovarian cancer

  • Colon cancer

  • Thyroid cancer

  • Prostate cancer

…and many more.

Why Would You Take A Genetic Test For Cancer?

There are various reasons why one would take a genetic test for cancer. Aside from learning how high your risk for developing cancer is, genetic testing can also help you identify if you have genes that can pass an increased risk of cancer to your children2. If you have identified that you have a passable genetic risk for cancer, you can do your best to reduce other risks for cancer attributed to lifestyle and behavior. This is so that your children don’t suffer an increased risk of cancer aside from genetic risk. Given that 5-10% of cancers are hereditary3, you’ll want to do everything you can to protect the health of your children!

Another reason why one would do a genetic test for cancer is to inform individuals about the overall condition of their health. By having knowledge of the conditions of your health, you’ll have a more tangible guide on what to do to live a longer, healthier life. After all, this is what all of us want: to live full lives!

What Happens During Genetic Testing For Cancer?

There are multiple types of genetic testing for cancer. In fact, there are many commercially available options that you can take from the comfort of your home. Generally, however, the process for genetic testing for cancer can be broken down into the following:

1) Information Gathering. In normal circumstances, genetic tests are ordered by your genetic counselor, doctor, or health provider. Before requesting this test, they will review your family’s genetic history along with your medical history such as if you had previous biopsies, surgeries, cancer screening tests, and others2,4.

Based on the information you provided, your healthcare provider will determine your risk for cancer, if genetic testing will be necessary, and what genes should be tested for.

2) Specimen Collection. Once you have the go-signal to get genetically tested, have been appropriately educated on the process, and have given your consent to the test, specimen collection will begin4. Testing will be performed on a small sample of tissue or cells usually from blood, saliva, cells inside the cheek, skin cells, or other body tissues2,4. The sample will be sent to the genetic testing laboratory where they will run the necessary tests.

3) Results. Usually, it takes several weeks (often 2-3 weeks) until you get the results of your genetic test. The results will first be shared with your genetic counselor who will then schedule an appointment with you for a discussion of your genetic test. At this point, you can also ask for a copy of your results in case you want to review them on your own or with a family member.

A test can come back positive, negative, or variant of uncertain significance (VUS)4:

  • A positive result means you have a mutated gene that can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer;

  • A negative result means the test did not find the gene mutation it was tested for; and

  • A VUS result means a change in the gene has been detected but it is unsure whether this change affects your risk for cancer.

What Are The Benefits Of Genetic Testing For Cancer?

There are multiple significant benefits of genetic testing for cancer whether it turns out positive, negative, or VUS5,6. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, the benefits of genetic testing for cancer include:

  1. You become better informed on treatment options and decisions.

  2. You can gauge additional risks for other cancers.

  3. You can qualify for treatment clinical trials.

  4. Your relatives will have a better understanding of what their risk for cancer is.

On the other hand, if you are not been diagnosed with cancer, the benefits you can gain from genetic testing include:

  1. Decreased anxiety or fear of being uncertain about your risk for cancer.

  2. Work with healthcare providers early on to prevent cancer from happening.

  3. Take early action steps to prevent additional non-genetic cancer risks from passing on to your children.

When Would You Need To Do Genetic Testing For Cancer?

Not everyone may need to do a genetic test for cancer3. As previously mentioned, you will have to consult with a genetic counselor to see if getting a genetic test for cancer is helpful for you. If your doctor says you don’t need to get tested but you still want to get tested, this just might mean that your insurance won’t cover the costs.

Usually, genetic testing is recommended for cancer patients and relatives of those cancer patients3. If you have a family history of cancer, you might also want to consider getting genetically tested for cancer. Ultimately, the best course of action is to schedule an appointment with a reputable genetic counselor to assess whether doing a genetic test for cancer will be helpful for you.

HelenHealth Is Here To Help!

HelenHealth offers our community members various ways to jumpstart their cancer prediction and prevention journey. We have a team of fitness experts, nutritionists, and genetic counselors who can guide you as you assess your risk for cancer and ultimately prevent it. If you would like to learn more about how you can join our community today, don’t hesitate to reach out to me through my email!

Stay Healthy,

Samantha Ackary

Partnerships and Public Relations Head



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