When her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, Debbie Brown wanted answers.
Apart from her questions about treatment and care, she wondered about her own risk.
Up to that point, her mother was the picture of health. So with the genetic hand she was dealt, could Brown get cancer, too?
With a new genetic counseling clinic at Georgia Health Sciences University, Brown is able to get an insight into her hereditary risk for cancer simply by spitting into a cup.
The clinic, which opened in the GHSU Cancer Center during the summer, provides counseling and DNA testing to patients who have cancer and those who are curious about their risk.
“It’s peace of mind,” said Brown, who tested at the clinic Thursday. “It’s a matter of being proactive and to know you’ve done everything you can do to see if there is a hereditary correlation.”
Patients start the process with Mallory Hire, a genetic counselor, who gathers information about family illnesses, deaths and what caused some diseases.
Their DNA is tested with a blood or saliva sample, and the patient’s predisposition is analyzed in about three to four weeks.
Hire said genetic testing allows a person who is at high risk to be proactive to prevent disease by scheduling more screenings, weighing options for preventive surgery and changing medicines, for example.
For those who have cancer, testing can often provide some closure by revealing what caused the disease.
“Getting more information can help you make plans,” Hire said. “I think it’s also empowerment. There’s genetic conditions that once you have it, you have it, but with cancer you can take steps to prevent it or treat it.”
About 50 patients have used the counseling since Hire started at the cancer center this summer. Genetic counseling was available at GHSU in the past, but the establishment of the formal clinic was a response to a new Commission on Cancer standard implemented this year that required all cancer programs to have dedicated genetic testing in the centers.
Hire said 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers are hereditary, and certain forms put patients at a higher risk of developing other types. Someone who has ovarian cancer could use genetic testing to determine her risk for colon cancer because the two often occur together.
Brown said the counseling is similar to a conversation, with Hire asking sometimes surprising questions to find clues.
When Brown said a cousin had kidney cancer, Hire wanted to know on which side. When she mentioned an uncle who never had children, Hire asked why.
The process is painless and often provides answers to pain-stricken families, which Hire said is an invaluable tool when dealing with such a disease.
“It’s something to calm people’s fears,” she said. “It’s a real fear, and it’s theirs, but some people can come in this searching and leave with less anxiety.”