DNA Testing can reveal your heritage, but to access inherited health risks, see a genetic counselor.
It’s hardly possible to turn on the television without seeing them: the bubbly, excited people who have learned – by mailing their saliva swabs to a commercial DNA testing or analysis company –that they have Italian ancestors or are one-quarter Native American.
Using DNA to uncover your ethnic roots is interesting and exciting, and most of the companies that advertise on television generally offer accurate information about your ancestry, says Darcy Huismann, MS, a certified genetic counselor at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers.
But when it comes to analyzing an individual’s risk for cancer or other diseases, and interpreting genetic findings, your best bet is still personalized, detailed analysis and interpretation from a certified genetic counselor, Huismann says. “Most forms of mail-in DNA analysis are essentially recreational genetics. It’s fun and interesting, but is often not clinically useful.”
Many mail-in services will analyze a person’s ancestry and some offer information about carrier status of common conditions that can affect reproductive choices. There’s a misunderstanding by some individuals, however, that these mail-in services can provide them the answer to a number of other health problems or tell them what health conditions they will develop in the future. Often, these types of tests look at certain genetic markers that are common in specific groups of people who have a higher or lower likelihood of a disease, but this does not give specific information about that individual’s risk.
“To get a true personalized picture of risk for certain conditions like cancer, we look at the alteration of certain genes, family history, personal medical history, and sometimes environmental exposures,” Ms. Huismann says. The result is the basis for an in-depth, in-person conversation with a genetic counselor about cancer risk – or lack of risk.
Although the vast majority of cancers are not genetically linked, researchers have identified inherited genetic changes that can increase the risk for breast, colon, ovarian, and uterine cancers, among others. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, certified genetic counselors like Ms. Huismann not only provide personalized assessment of cancer risk, but in many cases help patients craft a management plan in light of that risk.
“We can suggest and help set up appropriate screening tests,” for many types of cancer, she says. For those at increased risk of breast cancer, for example, genetic counselors work with oncologists to discuss the use of increased screening, risk-reducing surgeries, or even anti-cancer therapies, such as Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors.
The bottom line, Ms. Huismann says, is while mailing in DNA samples might provide answers about your heritage quickly, this is not a substitute for personalized medical information and guidance that genetic counselors can provide.