Being Well

When Your Cancer Gene Test Comes Back Positive

Genetic testing can shed light on some worries you have about your health and determine if you have a cancer gene mutation. Talk to your doctor about your options and what to do if the results come back positive.

Whether you have a loved one diagnosed with cancer or you’re just concerned about your own risk, getting tested for a cancer gene mutation is a serious decision. Genetic testing results can change the way you think about your future but can also prompt you to take better care of yourself if there’s a confirmed genetic risk. If you’re worried about your cancer risk, your first steps are to understand what exactly genetic testing is and what to do after.

What is Genetic Testing?

With genetic testing, you’re looking for a mutation in the gene, chromosome, or protein. Fortunately, not all mutations are harmful but some can increase your risk of developing cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) says that inherited mutations are involved in 5 – 10% of cancers. Some specific mutated genes associated with a variety of cancer types.

Should You Get It?

Just because genetic testing is available doesn’t mean everyone should get it. Experts recommend using three criteria for deciding when to get tested, according to the NCI.

  1. You should have a strong family history of a potential inherited risk.
  2. Testing should be able to tell you if the suspected cancer gene changes are present.
  3. The results should help you with future health care decision-making.

If you’re concerned you’re at risk for a specific cancer, it’s best to get genetic testing done by a physician or through a genetic counselor. Some tests are available directly to consumers. The Federal Trade Commission recommends avoiding this route as results can be misinterpreted or incomplete.

What Happens If Your Results Are Positive?

Waiting for your results can cause anxiety and receiving results that a specific cancer mutation is present is devastating for some. Having the support of a genetic counselor is important. If your results are positive, the counselor will give you recommendations for future screening, preventative care, additional resources, and support groups.

It’s normal to be concerned about your positive results. Take a list of specific questions and concerns to your doctor or genetic counselor. Gathering information can put your mind at ease. Find out how you can proactively care for yourself, what screenings are recommended, and how often.

Take a friend or family member to be a second set of ears and to take notes. Consider seeing a therapist after getting your results if you’re having difficulty processing your emotions. You can also use social media to connect with people who have similar concerns. If positive for a BRCA gene, participate on a discussion board like this one from Breastcancer.org, to share your story and hear from others.

If your results are positive some family members might be concerned that they too have a cancer gene mutation. Check to see if they want to know specifics before sharing your results. Others might be anxious about your future health. The testing can affect others in ways you may not realize.

The Mayo Clinic says that, overall, those who receive positive results cope with it well. Take the opportunity to use this information and be proactive in caring for yourself. If cancer does develop, these measures give you more a chance of catching it early.

Genetic counseling is not for everyone. If you're concerned about your cancer risk, talk to your doctor about your testing options and availability.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan