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New Ulm Medical Center

Partnership allows New Ulm patients to assess genetic cancer risk

While behaviors such as smoking can significantly raise your risk of cancer, your family history may also play a key role in determining your odds of developing the disease. To help quantify your risk of getting a particular type of cancer, genetic counseling is available at the Virginia Piper Cancer Center - New Ulm Medical Center.

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Amber Coil, RN, converses with genetic counselor Erin Engel via telemedicine as she readies the equipment for a genetic counseling session.

Located on the lower level of the NUMC, the VPCI will offer an array of oncology services, including genetic testing and counseling. Erin Engel, a genetic counselor with the program, noted that only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancer is believed to be due to a major heritable risk, even though many families have more than one person with a particular type of cancer.

“Family history is therefore one of our best tools in assessing cancer risk,” Engel said. If a woman has a mother and a sister with breast cancer for instance, her risk of developing breast cancer is going to be elevated. “Typically a genetic counselor will try to obtain a three-generation family history including the patient and his or her siblings and children, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and first cousins.”

“Once a patient is scheduled for genetic counseling, they are typically asked to answer some questions about their personal and family history,” Engel said. “In the cancer field we are mainly concerned with how many individuals there are in a given family, the genders and ages of these individuals, and anyone in the family who has had a particular type of cancer. It is very important that we know what type of cancer and how old the person was when he or she was diagnosed. In many cases, the genetic counselor can help facilitate obtaining medical records to help clarify diagnoses.”

Genetic counselors can use other cancer risk assessment methods in conjunction with one's personal and family history, such as risk models and published guidelines, to evaluate an individual’s level of risk and the appropriateness of various screening tools, she said.

“The individuals who we would like health care providers to target for genetic counseling would be those with a personal or family history of cancer at younger-than-average ages, for instance breast cancer before 45 or colon cancer before 50. If someone has multiple close family members with the same type or similar constellation of cancers, individuals with multiple primary tumors or rare cancers, or individuals with an increased number of polyps, these would also be individuals that may benefit from genetic counseling and may be most appropriate for pursuing genetic testing,” she said.

Engel said that many individuals want to know their risks, especially because cancer touches so many families. Importantly though, genetic testing is not appropriate for everyone. A genetic counselor helps to identify when genetic testing is indicated and which gene/s would be appropriate for evaluation. Genetic testing often involves testing blood (or other body tissue in some cases), and can help evaluate an individual’s risk for the development of a particular type of cancer, as well as the person’s underlying susceptibility to certain forms of cancer. This in turn guides screening recommendations for the individual and family members.

“There are many different genes that can predispose to cancer if they are not working correctly, so it is important to have a detailed personal and family history to help guide us in determining which gene/s, if any, to recommend testing for,” Engel said. “We also utilize national testing guidelines as well as insurance guidelines when making our recommendations.”

NUMC will have access to a staff of three genetic counselors through the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute ready to answer your questions and analyze your information and risk. Engel, who holds a master’s degree in molecular, cellular, developmental biology and genetics from the University of Minnesota, said she’s especially pleased to bring state-of-the art genetic testing and counseling to the community of New Ulm.

If you would like to learn more about genetic counseling and cancer screening in general at NUMC, call 507-217-5562.

Source: Krames StayWell
Reviewed by: Erin Engel
First Published: 02/01/2012
Last Reviewed: 02/01/2012