Among your holiday gifts this season, you may have received the popular genetic testing kits to help you learn more about your family history. While these kits can be interesting and help spark conversations with your family, people should be aware that the information revealed is only a small part of the picture.
“Some health conditions run in families and it can be important to know what your risks are,” said Heather Willems, Certified Genetic Counselor at the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center. “While these kits are a place to start, patients should not rely on these tests alone for accurate information.”
Willems explained that it is important to consult with a certified genetic counselor to analyze health history information, especially for people whose immediate family members have had serious health conditions. ThedaCare offers genetic testing and counseling at the Regional Cancer Center in Appleton and at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah. Staff includes three genetic counselors and three genetic counseling assistants.
“Genetic counseling can help you gain a better understanding of the health information you’ve discovered with ancestry testing or from talking to relatives,” she said. “Genetic counselors review your medical and family history to determine your risk of developing a specific medical condition. From there, we can help guide you through next steps, using the valuable information to help make informed health decisions.”
During a consultation with a genetic counselor, patients are walked through a series of health questions to help determine the risk of developing various conditions. The genetic counselor may ask about which family members have certain health conditions, how early in life these conditions developed, the gender of family members with the condition, any notable combinations of diseases, your own current health habits and many other contingencies that all play a role in your risk.
“Your family history can hold a lot of clues that point toward conditions for which you may be at higher risk, and genetic counseling can help you note areas where prevention measures can be taken,” Willems said.
For those patients who are at higher risk for health conditions such as certain cancers, patients may receive recommendations to start screenings at an earlier age, or to undergo genetic testing to help reveal more information about risks. Genetic counselors also can provide referrals to specialists who may recommend additional action, such as more frequent testing or preventive surgery.
As a comprehensive health care system dedicated to individualized care, ThedaCare teams work to understand each person’s unique medical background, risks, lifestyle, values and goals. Willems explained that genetic testing one way that patients and care teams can be proactive in care, helping predict and prevent disease before complications arise.
People should also understand that at-home genetic tests search for some — but not all — variants of disease. For instance, if you have a relative who had breast cancer, you may wonder about the “breast cancer gene,” or the BRCA mutation. Some tests can search for the most common BRCA gene mutations that can indicate a greater risk of developing breast and other cancers. Willems noted there are many, many variants in the BRCA gene that will not show up on these basic tests.
“You should not rely on at-home tests to tell you whether or not you are ‘safe’ from developing certain cancers or other conditions, especially if you have a family history of certain diseases,” Willems said. “Consulting with a certified genetic counselor and getting tested through a medical facility is a better way to gain that information.”
Additionally, while more comprehensive medical testing can tell you whether you possess genetic variants that show a greater risk of disease, neither necessarily mean you will develop those conditions. Factors such as diet, exercise, and environment, as well as your exposure to toxins, for example, can impact your health and likelihood of developing those diseases as well.
“Our genetic counseling team can provide emotional support, and resources, including behavioral health counseling,” she said. “On the clinical side, we have the medical knowledge to outline a management plan for each person. With greater knowledge, patients can work with their medical providers to come up with a unique plan that addresses their individual health care needs.”
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including seven hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.