Uncovering Cancer in Our Genes - Expanded Genetic Counseling Program

Jan 11, 2017, 14:21 PM by Cancer Center

The Genetic Counseling Program at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara has recently expanded to three onsite genetic counselors, making it one of the largest programs in California. The Cancer Center expanded the program in response to growing demand from patients and physicians for help identifying and supporting individuals with genetic predispositions to cancer.

Approximately 5-10% of cancer patients carry in their genes an identifiable hereditary predisposition to cancer. Genetic counselors help identify which patients should be tested for one of these mutations and for which mutations they should be screened. When a mutation is found, the genetic counselors assist patients and their doctors by identifying the specific cancers to which they are susceptible and the means by the occurrence of these cancers might be detected at an early stage or prevented entirely. They also counsel family members who might also benefit from genetic testing.

“Our robust Genetic Counseling Program helps patients and families with a history of cancer better understand and manage their cancer risk,” said Danielle Sharaga, MS, LCGC, Genetic Counselor and Program Coordinator at the Cancer Center. “This spring we welcomed two new genetic counselors.”

Thanks to a grant through Richard V. Gunner, trustee of the Dr. Howard R. Bierman and Anthony (Andy) Granatelli Fund, the Genetic Counseling Program has expanded to support our community by identifying and supporting individuals with Lynch Syndrome, the most common hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome. Colon cancer genetic testing referrals are not as common as breast cancer referrals because many people are unaware of the option to test for hereditary colon cancers. This means there are people in the community who may not know they should be evaluated for hereditary colorectal cancer conditions.

“Lynch Syndrome accounts for 1-3% of all colon cancers. The prevalence of Lynch Syndrome is approximately 1 in 440, so it is not very common and many people may not know about the syndrome,” explained Hannah Andrews, MS, Genetic Counselor, who will support this part of the program. Andrews will also reach out to local physicians to provide education, increase awareness, and provide the option of genetic testing for hereditary colon cancer. The Genetic Counseling team will also work with the Cottage Health Pathology Department to develop a program that screens patients with colon and endometrial cancer tumors. The screening tests will identify individuals that may have Lynch Syndrome, which guides outreach for appropriate genetic counseling and testing. “The screening of tumor tissue in colon and endometrial cancers will identify individuals who may have Lynch Syndrome, which can indicate what other cancers they are at risk for – potentially saving lives in their families,” said Andrews.

Erica Wellington, MS, LCGC, Genetic Counselor supports patient assessment of a wide variety of inherited cancer syndromes.

“Cancer genetic risk assessment — the process of taking a family history and predicting cancer risks based on that history and genetic testing —is an important tool in the fight against cancer.

It allows us to identify those individuals who are at risk for early onset cancer, multiple cancers, and rare cancers. Once armed with this information, we can do much more for prevention, early detection, and treatment of those cancers,” Wellington explained.

With a newly expanded team, the program now also offers these services in Solvang. “It is wonderful to be a part of this program, especially as research continues for genetic syndromes,” said Wellington. “The medical community is continually learning about genes that can cause hereditary cancers. This is important for patients, because more families that exhibit a clear hereditary pattern of cancer will be able to get an explanation from genetic testing. The challenge now is to gather more data on newer genes – the same type of data that we have for the more well known BRCA1 and BRCA2 – that allows us to predict cancer risks and implement increased screening or preventive measures that improve health outcomes for patients.”

Many factors must be considered when discussing cancer risk with a genetic counselor, including your personality, coping style, and your family’s experience with cancer. The Genetic Counseling Program offers confidential information, reassurance, and support to patients and their families. It also offers comprehensive genetic counseling and testing services by one of our genetic counselors to patients and families at suspected risk for hereditary cancer.

If you have a personal or family history of cancer, talk to your doctor about whether or not a referral to Genetic Counseling would be appropriate.

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