Why you should talk about your genes

Why you should talk about your genes

You can choose your jeans, but you can’t choose your genes – traits and characteristics, like eye color, nose shape and smile, inherited from parents and previous generations. Specific genes put people at an increased risk for certain illnesses, such as breast cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Through open dialogue with family and genetic testing and counseling, women can pinpoint inherited genes linked to diseases and take appropriate actions to minimize risks.

While approaching family members to discuss difficult health issues can be challenging, a recent study has found a new technique that helps women converse more openly with the other women in their family about cancer risks. The report, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, examined the effects of the KinFact Intervention on communication about hereditary cancer.

KinFact is a skills-based tool that includes a 20-minute discussion between a woman and a research associate on how openly the participant discusses cancer risks with her family. Subsequently, the research associate offers recommendations to improve that communication. Common challenges for women  addressed in the conversation include loss of contact, lack of closeness, concern about upsetting others and lack of knowledge.

Through studying 490 women, researchers determined that KinFact study participants were more likely to communicate with relatives to collect and share family cancer information after receiving counseling than were women who were only offered a handout on cancer prevention.

“Communication within families about cancer diagnoses and risk is difficult, and interventions like KinFact are useful to better understand patients’ family health risks,” says Dr. Susan G. Kornstein, editor-in-chief of Journal of Women’s Health, in a press release.

Women who do become more comfortable discussing genetic health risks with their families are oftentimes more likely to go through a genetic counseling program in which they are measured and tested for cancer risk. Undergoing testing and working with genetic counselors can aid decision-making about risk-reducing preventive surgery — like a double mastectomy for women who carry the genetic breast cancer gene.

“A Genetic Cancer Risk Assessment is available for women with a personal and/or family history of cancer. Once detailed family and medical histories are obtained, women can be counseled about the likelihood of a hereditary predisposition towards cancer and the availability of genetic testing, says Cristina Ruiz, MS, CGC, licensed genetic counselor at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “If a gene has been identified in the family to be associated with an increased cancer risk and a woman has not inherited that gene then she can be offered peace of mind that her risk for cancer is not increased above the population risk.”

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One Comment

  1. What if your child has cancer? Is that relevant to one’s genetic history or does one only consider past relatives?

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About the Author

Julie Nakis
Julie Nakis

Julie Nakis, health enews contributor, is manager of public affairs at Advocate Children's Hospital. She earned her BA in communications from the University of Iowa – Go Hawkeyes! In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, exploring the city and cheering on the Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks.