Genetic testing is a proactive approach to cancer: Why it’s so important

Many cancers can be hereditary

Throughout the years, medical advancements have shown that genetic testing can significantly reduce the risk of developing certain cancers.

Genetic testing examines changes in a person’s DNA sequence or chromosome structure, allowing doctors to better understand that person’s risk for certain cancers. For example, the BRCA gene test determines if there are DNA changes that increase the risk of breast cancer.

Local 4′s Megan Woods took that precise test, hoping to find out if she is at risk for breast cancer.

When it comes to cancer genetic testing, everyone’s “why” is different. Megan Woods says she decided to do genetic testing because both of her grandmothers and their siblings had breast cancer.

See her story: Megan Woods: I did genetic testing for breast cancer. Now I’m sharing my journey to raise awareness

But, for everyone and anyone: Genetic testing is a proactive approach in the fight against cancer and in cancer prevention, whether there’s a family history of cancer or not.

The importance of genetic testing

Genetic testing for something as serious as cancer can feel intimidating at first. But there are people who help guide you through the process, helping you to understand it.

Before doing the test, Megan Woods met with a genetic counselor who helped explain the test’s importance.

“We have a specific set of genes that are called cancer genes, and typically their job is to protect you from developing cancer,” said Alexis Gallant, a certified genetic counselor at Corewell Health. “But sometimes, people can be born with a change in a gene -- so basically you can think of it as a spelling change, so missing letters, extra letters.”

Genetic cancer variants can be harmful, neutral, or beneficial. Harmful variants do not necessarily mean cancerous outcomes are certain, but they do increase the risk of developing cancer.

Genetic changes could mean genes, such as BRCA genes, do not function properly. So, instead of protecting from cancer, they can put individuals at higher risk.

Dr. Dana Zakalik, director of cancer genetics at Corewell Health East, says gene testing is a way to get a head start on any necessary cancer prevention or interventions.

“We have wonderful interventions, very effective interventions, for risk reduction, early detection, and even therapies,” Dr. Zakalik said.

For the test at the Nancy and James Grosfeld Cancer Genetics Center, which is inside Corewell Health William Beaumont University Hospital, staff draw blood from the individual and send it to the lab to screen for improper gene performance.

Cancer can be hereditary

Some cancers, including breast, ovarian and prostate cancers, can be hereditary. And, according to Dr. Zakalik, some demographics are prone to more severe cases than others.

“For Black men, prostate cancer has a genetic component. We know that prostate cancer is more common in Black men; tends to also be more aggressive,” Zakalik said. “Among Black women, breast cancer tends to be more aggressive. It gets diagnosed at more advanced stages and tends to have a worse prognosis.”

Access to screening leads to early detection. Experts say it is essential to detect cancer in its early stages, because there are better chances of fighting it.

A proactive approach is always better than a reactive one when it comes to your health. Dr. Zakalik says patients should be their own advocates and ask for screenings and examinations, rather than wait to be told to get them.

Corewell Health says more than 90% of patients with insurance and a family history usually have no out-of-pocket costs for screenings and testing.

Who’s a good candidate for gene testing?

Not sure if you’re a good candidate for genetic testing? Dr. Zakalik says that everyone can benefit from the test.

Zakalik explains more on that in the video below.

About the Authors:

Megan Woods is thrilled to be back home and reporting at Local 4. She joined the team in September 2021. Before returning to Michigan, Megan reported at stations across the country including Northern Michigan, Southwest Louisiana and a sister station in Southwest Virginia.