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December 28, 2010 > Cancer in the Family?

Cancer in the Family?

Learn About Genetic Testing at Upcoming Washington Women's Center Class

For people with multiple family members who have been diagnosed with cancer, the future can feel like a ticking time bomb. For others it can feel hopeless, like they're doomed to the same fate.

But the future is not sealed, according Vandana Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., an oncologist on the Washington Hospital Medical Staff and medical director of the hospital's Cancer Genetics program. By getting information and understanding risk, people can positively impact their outcomes when it comes to cancer, she says.

On Tuesday, January 4, from noon to 1 p.m., Dr. Sharma and Nicki Chun, MS, CGC, a genetic counselor with the Stanford Cancer Genetics Clinic, will present a free Lunch and Learn lecture at the Washington Women's Center to discuss why and how genetic counseling can help individuals with a strong family history of cancer.

"Knowledge is empowering, but people may not even realize that their risk for developing cancer is something they can alter," Dr. Sharma says. "Patients have said to me, 'I just assumed I would die of cancer because everyone else in my family has.' I want people to understand that this isn't the case.

"When we do genetic testing, we're able to implement strategies to diagnose the cancer earlier and sometimes even prevent it. If we test someone and they don't have a gene mutation, then they know that they don't have an increased risk. It can be like a weight has been lifted."

According to Dr. Sharma, people who might benefit from this seminar include:
* Individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer and have a family history
* Women with a mother or sister who have been diagnosed with breast cancer
* Individuals diagnosed with multiple cancers (such as breast and ovarian cancers)
* Individuals with colon or uterine cancer
* Anyone with multiple family members affected by cancer
* Members of the community interested in learning more about genetics

"One of the reasons we want people to be aware of family history in regard to cancer is because we would potentially screen these individuals differently, simply because there are some very direct, immediate implications with family history in regards to cancer risk," Dr. Sharma says.

Likewise, individuals diagnosed with more than two cancers are more prone to a genetic predisposition that could be shared amongst family members-people whose screening schedules for cancer may change drastically based on this information.

"In the case of a woman with a mother diagnosed with breast cancer at 45, we would probably suggest a more intensive screening for breast cancer for that individual patient," Dr. Sharma explains. "Similarly, a man with multiple family members with colon cancer would potentially have his screening more often.

"The general screening schedule for colon cancer is beginning at age 50, and if everything is normal, a person is screened five to 10 years later. However, with a strong family history, the schedule increases in frequency to one to three years. We always recommend that people with a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed begin the screening 10 years younger than the age their relative was diagnosed. We wouldn't wait until the age the cancer was found in the family member."

Rather than feeling anxious and uncertain about what the future holds, Nicki Chun recommends seeking information.

"Many people have relatives with cancer," Chun says. "During the talk, we'll discuss who might benefit from genetic testing, the basics of inherited cancer risk, what genetic tests are currently available and what might become available in the future.

"Two of the most common questions people have when they come to genetic counseling are: 'What caused my cancer?' and 'What does it mean for my kids and relatives?' The other outstanding question is: 'How will this affect my treatment?'"

Chun points out that in addition to screening frequency, treatment options for individuals with cancer frequently change based on knowledge about family history and genetic risk. For example, treatment of a younger women diagnosed with breast cancer may be altered to limit radiation. Also, a recently released drug has been found more effective in treating breast and ovarian cancers syndrome for carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are human genes that belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors.

Dr. Sharma adds that no one should feel frightened of getting information about genetic risk.

"Some people are afraid of being discriminated against, but there are federal and state laws that prevent employment or health insurance discrimination based on someone's genetic information," she says. "It's all confidential and genetic testing and counseling can make a significant difference.

"We very strongly believe that an individual should go through genetic counseling and have an opportunity to speak with a physician who understands the implications of a positive, negative or ambiguous test result."

Learn More About Genetic Testing

Bring your lunch and learn more from Dr. Sharma and Ms. Chun about genetic counseling and cancer risk based on family history. "Cancer in the Family...Am I at Risk?" will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 4, from noon to 1 p.m. in the Washington Women's Center Conference Room, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue, Suite 150, in the Washington West building.

For more information, call (866) 608-1301 or (510) 608-1301. To register for classes at the Washington Women's Center, call (800) 963-7070 or go online at

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