Genetic Tests and Cancer

26 July 2017

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Expert interviewed:

Dr Hilda High, Genetic Oncologist 

Hilda High and Julie McCrossinThe thing about cancer is that it is seen more and more as a genetic disease.

What does that mean for people with cancer? Is there a cancer gene? How do you find out if cancer runs in your family? And how can genetic tests help you and your doctors work out the best treatment path?

In this episode of The Thing About Cancer podcast, Julie tackles these questions with genetic oncologist Hilda High.

– Hilda High, genetic oncologist

Listen to Genetic Tests and Cancer now, or find more episodes here.

Can you have a genetic test to see if you are going to get cancer?

For particular cancers, when there’s a family history,  you can test for mutations in specific genes. For example, BRCA1 (the gene tested in Angelina Jolie’s case), BRCA2 and PALB2 are all genes that can be tested for breast and ovarian cancer – but only 5–10% of cancers involve an inherited faulty gene. Even if an inherited faulty gene is found, it doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer – it only tells us that you have an increased risk.

If you have cancer, should your family members be tested for the gene?

Ask your cancer specialist if your family members should be tested. Often the genetic mutation is just a random event and your family members won’t have a higher than normal risk of developing that cancer.

What exactly is a gene? How does it relate to DNA?

Genes are made up of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), and are located inside each cell. Genes tell the cell what to do, and when to grow and divide.

Each human cell has about 25,000 genes.

Almost all the cells in the body contain the same genes, but the cells can become specialised by turning particular genes on or off (e.g. some become skin cells, some become bone cells).

Cancer as a genetic disease

If most cancers occur in people with no family history, how do they happen? And why are they still considered a genetic disease? In this episode, Hilda shines a light on this often fuzzy area.

She explains that cancer is called a genetic disease because it is caused by abnormal changes in a person’s genes. Some types of cancer are inherited, but most aren’t actually linked to the genes we get from our parents.

– Hilda High, genetic oncologist

Can genetic tests help work out your cancer treatment?

Genetic tests can sometimes be used to work out if a particular treatment might work. With targeted therapies, doctors match the drugs to cancers with very specific genetic mutations. However, these drugs will work only on a small number of patients, are very expensive, and are often still experimental.

Tune into this episode as we explore the impact genes can have on cancer, how to find out if genetic testing would be helpful for you, the future of genetic testing and cancer treatment, and much more.

Listen to Genetic Tests and Cancer now, or find more episodes here.

Want more information or support? 

If you heard something mentioned in the podcast, you’ll find a link to it below. We’ve also added links to other sources of information and support. 

From Cancer Council NSW 

From other organisations 

Listen to Genetic Tests and Cancer now, or find more episodes here.