“The revolution in cancer research can be summed up in a single sentence: cancer is, in essence, a genetic disease.”
Cancer. Surprising how this one word elicits a whole spectrum of emotions. Granted most of those fall towards the greyer end of the color chart, but it ain’t called the “emperor of all maladies” for no reason. (You can thank Siddhartha Mukherjee for giving it this title). One of the most well studied, and yet one of the chart-toppers on the confounding list, cancer is a disease that is no longer confined to round table discussions at the top-tier academic institutions, but has now become dinner conversation in most households.
But as a wise man once said and I rephrase – Half baked knowledge is a waaayyyy worse thing than ignorance. So let’s finish baking, well to the best of our abilities…
What is cancer?
Cancer occurs when certain cells in the body are no longer growing normally and are dividing uncontrollably. Cancer cells may grow too quickly and form a lump, also called a tumor. It may damage normal tissue in our body or spread through our body.
What causes cancer?
Cancer is a multifactorial disease involving abnormal cell growth. This abnormal cell growth occurs because of a change in the cell’s DNA that hinders the body’s intrinsic ability to identify and get rid of any abnormally-growing cells. Oftentimes these genetic changes can be acquired by lifestyle risk factors- we know that smoking causes cancer because of the carcinogenic effect of the chemicals in cigarette smoke. But sometimes, a genetic predisposition can be inherited, increasing the susceptibility of cells to grow abnormally. Unchecked, these abnormally-growing cells have the potential to spread to other parts of the body.
Factors that can increase risk for cancers are:
- Lifestyle– Diet, consumption of alcohol, smoking, chewing betel nut, obesity
- Environment– Exposure to chemicals (arsenic, asbestos, certain dyes), pesticides in high doses
- Biological aging– Our risk for developing cancer increases as we grow older
- Genetics– Cancers that run in families may have an underlying genetic cause
Are all cancers hereditary?
No, not all cancers are hereditary. In fact, most cancers are sporadic, meaning they occur due to combination of many factors such as our lifestyle, environmental exposures, aging or genetics. Only about 5-10% of cancer are hereditary. Speak to a genetic counselor if you are concerned about your family history of cancer.
All cancers are genetic but not all cancers are hereditary. A tumor develops when a single cell has accumulated multiple genetic changes over time and is dividing abnormally. In hereditary cancers, individuals inherit a specific genetic change that predisposes or increases their risk for developing cancer. Inheriting a genetic change does not guarantee that cancer will develop!
What are the signs of hereditary cancers?
- Multiple generations of people diagnosed with the same or related cancers
- Early age of cancer diagnoses usually under age 50 years
- People with more than one type of cancer (for example, a woman with both breast and ovarian cancer)
- Presence of rare cancers (such as ovarian cancer or males with breast cancer)
Why should I speak to a genetic counselor?
- A genetic counselor can assess your personal and family health history to determine if the cancers for you or your family members could be hereditary and provide recommendations for genetic testing.
- If your genetic test results are positive: Your genetic counselor will provide concrete recommendations for screening and management to detect cancer early or reduce your risk of developing cancer.
- If your genetic test results are negative: This can be reassuring! Your genetic counselor will give you personalized screening and management recommendations.
- Sometimes, it may be difficult to identify a single genetic cause for the cancers in your family. Your genetic counselor can play a vital role in providing family history-based screening recommendations that can be potentially lifesaving.
What’s the point of finding out my risk if I cannot change my DNA?
Identifying your risk for cancer can seem scary, but it comes with several benefits:
- Ability to personalize screening and management to reduce cancer risk based on a genetic test result
- Potential to understand the source of cancer risk in the family and provide medically actionable information for other at-risk family members
- Personalized treatments for certain cancers based on underlying genetic causes associated with that cancer
Genetic Counselors are healthcare professionals with specialized training in medical genetics and psychological counseling. They will help you make an assessment of your risk based on medical and family history and help you cope with concerns, fears or worries that you may have due to your cancer history.
But hold on…cancer prevention you say… Does that mean I can find out about cancer before it strikes?
Absolutely! There are diagnostic tests that can help you ascertain if you carry a mutation in some or the other gene which is implicated in cancer, which then allows you to take preventive measures early on. (I’m assuming you know about the whole BRCA gene mutation saga thanks to Angelina Jolie!). But there’s more. Tests like the Genomepatri can help you ascertain your genetic risk for over 20 different kinds of cancers with one simple, painless saliva swab! Yep..it’s THAT easy! Once your genetic risk score is uncovered, our genetic counselors will guide you through the dietary and lifestyle modifications you could make to mitigate that risk, and the kinds of clinical tests you ought to include in your annual health check up. Stay ahead in the game, and you stand a bloody good chance of winning it! 🙂
Curious about cancer? Know someone who is suffering from Cancer?
Does it run in your family? Could you be at risk for cancer?
What can you do to find out, or even better, mitigate your risk?
Well, join us for a Facebook Live session on Saturday 3rd February, at 1000 hours (IST),
where our brilliant Genetic Counselors – Pooja Ramchandran and Neeraja Reddy
will raise awareness and answer your questions about Cancer!
Meet Our Genetic Counselors:
Pooja Ramchandran is a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling in India and Director of Genetic Counseling at Mapmygenome. She has been practicing clinical genetic counseling in India since graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2008. She is a much sought-after expert in a niche profession and, being the first genetic counselor in the country with a formal degree in genetic counseling, she is committed to establishing the genetic counseling profession in India.
Neeraja Reddy is a board-certified genetic counselor (American Board of Genetic Counseling). She is a genetic counselor at Mapmygenome. Neeraja completed her Masters in Genetic Counseling from Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. She had earlier worked with University of Pennsylvania, Telegenetics Program.