Genetic Testing: Your top four questions, answered

Genetic Testing: Your top four questions, answered

Genetic testing is all over the media these days, with A-list celebrities publicly discussing their decision to undergo it, and direct-to-consumer companies advertising simple saliva tests to “unlock your genes”. How do you make an informed decision about genetic testing? Will a simple saliva test really tell you about your future disease risk? As a genetic counsellor, I address many questions and misconceptions about genetic testing, helping steer concerned clients clear of misinformation. Below you will find the top four questions I get from clients:

I’m already at risk for the disease because my mother and grandmother had it. How will seeing a genetic counsellor help?

Having a family history of disease does not necessarily mean that you will get it. Genetic counsellors are trained in family history risk assessment, and can help you understand what your family history means for you. During the session, the genetic counsellor will discuss how genetics and external factors, such as environment or lifestyle, might have played a role in the development of illness in your family. Based on this assessment, you may learn that your risk is not as high as you previously thought. If you have elevated risk, your counsellor will work with your care team to ensure appropriate screening and prevention tools are available to you.

I don’t want to learn about my genetic risk because there is nothing I can do about it, is there?

For many common health conditions, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, genes and family history do play a role in our risk of developing them. However, the lifestyle choices we make, and whether or not we undergo early screening and detection, can also have a dramatic impact on outcomes. As well, there may be lifestyle modifications you can make, such as avoiding smoking and making specific dietary and lifestyle choices, which can help to further reduce your risk.

If I see a genetic counsellor, will I have to have a genetic test?

No. A genetic counselling appointment is an opportunity for you to discuss the availability of genetic testing, and the usefulness of testing in your situation. A counsellor will help you weigh the pros and cons of testing, and assist you in decision-making. We will not tell you what to do. After undergoing genetic counselling, some people decide that testing is not right for them, and that’s ok.

Is home-DNA testing the same as DNA testing ordered by a doctor?

In many cases, the answer to this question is no. When genetic testing is recommended by your doctor or health provider because of a specific health concern, the test is targeted to your needs. Often the tests provided by direct-to-consumer companies are generalized and the results you receive may or may not be applicable to your situation. As well, the robustness of the test, including the detection rate (the chance of the test finding an alteration) may vary significantly between direct-to-consumer companies. If you are considering a home-based genetic test, you may wish to speak with your doctor or a genetic counsellor to make sure you are well informed.

Genetic counsellors are health professionals dedicated to helping families understand the complicated and often emotional topic of genetic testing. Please contact Copeman Healthcare for more information on how you can engage with a counsellor to review your needs.