Genetic Counseling And Testing Aids In Cancer Prevention And Risk Reduction

There’s no better time than National Cancer Prevention Month, which is celebrated each February, to learn how to reduce cancer risk. Genetic counseling can determine whether you are at risk for developing certain cancers, and provides you and your physician with the information needed to make informed decisions on genetic testing and risk reduction.

Knowing the role of genetics in cancer development is important in preventative measures.
Knowing the role of genetics in cancer development is important in preventative measures. Photo Credit:

Cancer prevention begins with understanding your cancer risk factors. These include those you can control, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and eating a balanced diet, and those you cannot control, such as having a family history of cancer or an inherited genetic mutation associated with cancer.

While the majority of cancer cases are not hereditary, approximately five to ten percent of cancers occur because of an inherited genetic mutation that makes a person susceptible. In this familial cancer syndrome, gene mutations can predispose family members to certain types of cancer. Examples of familial cancer syndromes include Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome, which is linked to breast, ovary and pancreatic cancers. It is caused by mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer  -- also known as HNPCC, or Lynch syndrome -- is linked to colorectal, uterine, ovarian, bladder and other cancers, and is caused by mutations in the MSH2 and MLH1 genes.

For men and women who have more than one close relative with breast cancer, colorectal cancer or certain rare tumors, roughly 10 to 15 percent of this group will develop a genetic mutation associated with that cancer. For men with prostate cancer that has metastasized, or spread, almost one in five will carry a gene mutation. Even with individuals who have no strong personal or family history of cancer, a genetic testing of 76 specific genes has identified that one person in every 20 carries a “medically actionable gene,” that is associated with a cancer and can be prevented or treated with medical care.

Genetic counseling is the first step in deciding whether you should have genetic testing to determine the possibility of having inherited genes that are associated with cancer. Testing is appropriate if patients have a personal or family history of breast, ovarian, colorectal, uterine, pancreas, stomach or other rare cancers. Counseling is especially important if you have:

  • Breast cancer diagnosed before the age of 50
  • Colorectal or uterine cancer diagnosed before the age of 50
  • Multiple colorectal, stomach or small intestinal polyps
  • Ovarian cancer at any age
  • Pancreas cancer before age 50
  • Rare tumor types (e.g. sarcomas, renal)
  • Two or more primary cancers including colorectal, breast and others
  • Close relatives with breast cancer before the age of 50 and/or ovarian or pancreatic cancer at any age
  • Close relatives with colon and/or endometrial (uterine) cancer at a younger age
  • A close male relative with breast cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
  • Previously negative genetic testing (you may be eligible for new testing options)
Knowing whether or not you are at risk for cancer can help you and your physician intervene before the disease occurs. Preventive therapies can include medication, surgery and screenings that detect the cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages. Lifestyle approaches can also help reduce risk. 

For those considering genetic testing, it is important to locate a community or academic comprehensive cancer center with a genetic counselor available to help you in the decision process. This is an important approach in the delivery of personalized care targeted to you and your family, since you can take action to reduce your risk, as well as potentially prevent several cancers.

To find a cancer specialist at the NewYork-Presbyterian location most convenient for you, please visit

NewYork-Presbyterian is one of the largest and most comprehensive hospitals in the nation, ranked New York’s No. 1 hospital for the 16th consecutive year, and No. 6 in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. Affiliated with two academic medical colleges – Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Weill Cornell Medicine, NewYork-Presbyterian brings together internationally recognized researchers and clinicians to develop and implement the latest approaches for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center is one of only three NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in New York State. NewYork-Presbyterian provides comprehensive cancer care at all of our locations across the New York Metro area including Westchester County and the Hudson Valley. Learn more at