Mother’s Day is the perfect time to think about your genetic history and take steps to be your healthiest self.
Mother’s Day is not just a time to shower our mothers with appreciation (and flowers), but to reflect on the important role that they have played in shaping our lives as people, spouses and parents to our own children. Part of that means also looking at what our mothers (and our fathers) have also given us biologically, through their genes, so that we can take the necessary steps to ensure we are around for many more Mother’s Days to come.
“It’s important to get an accurate family history so you can be better aware of your own risks moving forward,” says Nicole Boxer, a genetics counselor at White Plains Hospital Center for Cancer Care, who notes that about 10 percent of cancers are hereditary, and many are very preventable. “Cancer used to be such a taboo topic to discuss, but it is so important to understand what types of cancers are in your family.”
If Mother’s Day brunch doesn’t seem like the ideal time, pick another time where everyone is relaxed and willing, so you are able to get as complete answers as possible to these three critical questions:
Who in the family had cancer and at what age? You may be alarmed to discover that three of your great aunts on both sides of the family had breast cancer, but Boxer says that’s actually not as concerning as learning that one first aunt did, or that their mother was first diagnosed at age 40. “The closer cancer is to you, the more relevant it is in terms of genetics and risk,” says Boxer.
What type of cancer did they have? Some types of cancer, such as breast, ovarian and pancreatic, are more hereditary than other types, such as leukemia, lymphoma or lung – which is mostly caused by smoking so it won’t show up in a panel. “If you tell me your father died of an unknown type of cancer, it doesn’t really clue me in as to which genes we should be ordering,” Boxer says. “If you tell me you spoke to your dad’s sister and it turns out he had pancreatic cancer, I can then order a targeted test looking at genes associated with pancreatic cancer risk.”
How were they treated? If your mom or dad are fuzzy on the exact type, try getting any details about symptoms and treatments. Did they have surgery first followed by chemo? Surgery only? Was bloating of the abdomen a symptom? Many hereditary cancers follow patterns, and genetic counselors are highly trained to use clues like these to try to pinpoint the exact type of cancer involved.
Genetics counseling, meeting with a trained specialist who reviews your family history of disease and orders specific tests to predict possible cancer risks, is more affordable and accessible than ever. Many insurances cover it, especially if you have a family history, but even if it doesn’t, some out-of-pocket costs could be as little as a couple of hundred dollars depending on what is ordered.
While less expensive over-the-counter kits are available, they only screen for a small portion of cancer genes and leave out a crucial part of the process: to work with an experienced clinician to help you figure out specific action steps, such as type of screening and frequency, needed to increase your risk of remaining cancer free.
Boxer emphasizes that while genetics counseling is more common with women, especially with advances in identifying mutations to the BRCA 1 and 2 genes, which point to elevated breast cancer risk, it is equally important for men with family history to receive genetics counseling when recommended. Don’t forget, Father’s Day is right around the corner.
For more information and to schedule an appointment with a genetics counselor, call the White Plains Hospital Center for Cancer Care at (914) 849-7500.