By now you’ve probably seen ads for at-home genetic tests. You may even have tried one or know someone who has.
Some of these tests just tell you about what countries your ancestors come from. Some tell you your heritage, plus details about your health. And some tell you if you’re at risk for certain types of cancer.
But are these tests reliable? And are they a good idea? We spoke with MD Anderson Cancer Center genetic counselor Rachel Webster to find out.
What types of genetic tests are available? How are they different from each other?
A few types of genetic tests are available:
- At-home ancestry-based genetic testing: Also called direct-to-consumer testing, these genetic products are marketed directly to patients. The company mails you a kit, and you mail back a DNA sample, typically saliva. The results are mailed back to you and include information like what countries your ancestors might have come from, if you prefer sweet or salty snacks or even how sensitive to caffeine you might be. Some of these test companies have started offering health information along with ancestry information.
- Clinician-administered genetic testing: These tests are generally conducted in person with a genetic counseling expert. This type of genetic testing is usually more targeted to a specific health condition like cancer, and must be ordered by a medical professional. These genetic tests can either be done through a saliva or blood sample. The difference is that in this case, your doctor or genetic counselor will help you interpret the results to determine your next steps.
Who needs genetic testing for cancer?
There are two groups of people who need genetic testing for cancer: cancer patients who are concerned that their family members might also be at risk for a genetic cancer and people with a family history of cancer.
It’s important to note that most cancers are not related to genetics. In fact, only between five and 10% of all cancer cases are hereditary. But if you’ve had two or more close family members with the same type of cancer, several generations in your family with the same type of cancer or family members who developed cancer at a young age, you are at increased risk to inherit cancer.
What are the pros and cons of direct-to-consumer genetic tests?
You don’t need your insurance to approve a direct-to-consumer genetic tests. But remember, these tests often don’t provide a complete picture. They look at isolated snippets of your DNA and when you receive the results they don’t provide any context.
For example, a negative genetic testing result might be reassuring, but you may still need extra breast cancer screening based on your family history. Consider bringing these results to your doctor or a genetic counselor.
What are the pros and cons of seeing a genetic counselor?
During genetic counseling, a health professional will review your family history and other factors to determine if you are at increased risk, making you a candidate for genetic testing.
In most cases, genetic counseling is covered by insurance. A genetic counselor can help you determine if genetic testing would be useful and if it’s covered by your insurance.
A genetic counselor can help you understand the context surrounding your genetic test. They can explain how the results fit into the larger picture of your health and your cancer risk.
If you receive these results without context you might not know where to turn next. A genetic counselor can help you answer the question, “Now what?” In some cases the answers might mean surgery. In others, it may be best to just monitor the situation.
Genetic counselors can help you decide what’s best for you and your overall cancer risk. If you have questions about genetic counseling or want to schedule an appointment, call 1-877-632-6789.