How Helpful Are Genetic Cancer Screenings?

Genetic cancer screenings are helpful for finding genetic changes, like mutations, that might make you more likely to get cancer. They won’t say if you already have cancer, but they’re helpful for anyone who wants to know if they have a gene mutation and take steps to lower their chance of developing cancer.

How Genetic Cancer Screening Works
A small sample of your bodily fluid or tissue, like blood, saliva, or skin cells, is collected and sent to a lab for examination. Technicians then search your genes for any mutations or changes that could mean a higher chance of getting cancer.
Which Cancers Does Genetic Cancer Screening Detect? Genetic cancer screenings don’t check for all types of inherited cancer, just some of them. Here are just a few of them the test looks for:

  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Melanoma
Understanding Genetic Cancer Screening Results
There are three different results that come from a genetic cancer screening:

  • Negative
  • Positive
  • Variant of Uncertain Significance (VUS)

    Let’s take a closer look at each result to understand its meaning and what to do if yours isn’t negative.
A Negative Genetic Cancer Screening Result
If your test says “negative,” it means no gene changes that could cause cancer were found. But, remember, the test doesn’t check for every possible gene mutation. So even if the test is negative, you could still have gene mutation if you have:

  • A gene change connected to cancer in your family history, but the tests available now can’t detect it
  • A specific mutation that the screening didn’t test for
  • An undiscovered mutation in your gene
A Positive Genetic Cancer Screening Result
Finding out you have a gene mutation can feel scary and confusing. Here are three important things to remember if you get a positive result:

  • A positive result doesn’t mean you have cancer right now. It means they found a mutated gene that might raise your chances of getting certain cancers.
  • Look into ways to prevent cancer. Use this time to talk with your doctor about steps you can take now to lower your risk or catch cancer early.
  • Tell your family. Since a mutated gene has been found in your body, it’s important to let your family know so they can decide if they want to get a genetic cancer screening too.
A Variant of Uncertain Significance (VUS)
A VUS result means a genetic mutation has been found, but its severity is unknown. Doctors don’t have a lot of useful information about VUS yet. In most cases, these gene changes turn out to be harmless. But it’s smart to keep seeing your doctor regularly to know if there’s any new information about your result later on.
Who Should Take Genetic Cancer Screenings?
If any of these apply to you, it might be a good idea to think about getting a genetic cancer screening:

  • If you have a family history of two or more different cancers
  • If your family members have the same type of cancer
  • If you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer before age 50

    You don’t have to match any of the criteria above to get the screening. It’s helpful for anyone worried about their own risk of cancer. Just be sure to talk with your doctor first to decide if the screening is a good idea for you.
Remember, genetic cancer screenings won’t predict if you’ll get cancer. Even if you test positive, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get sick. The tests only show some inherited details and if your body has mutations that night make cancer more likely.
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