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A genetic consultation is a discussion with a person trained in genetics. A genetic counsellor or consultant will listen to your concerns and advise you on your risk of developing cancer.
This video provides an introduction to genetic counselling. The information in this video was correct as of February 2012.
Please tell us what you think about our videos|.
There is a directory of all the genetic centres in the UK on the British Society of Human Genetics| website.
You might find it helpful to watch our video of Wendy telling her story of genetic testing|, and its effects on her and her family.
A genetic counsellor or consultant can discuss with you whether a genetic test| might be appropriate for you and tell you the benefits and limitations of testing. They can also discuss with you possible ways of managing your risk|.
The meeting may last 30-60 minutes. There probably won’t be a physical examination, but you might decide, together with your consultant or counsellor, to see a doctor or specialist nurse or to go for regular screening. Screening means testing to see if there are any abnormalities where there are no symptoms. It can help find a cancer earlier. There are different screening techniques for different types of cancer (see bowel cancer|, breast cancer |and ovarian cancer|).
Genetic counselling is a two-way process. The better prepared you are, the more you will get out of it. And you will also be better able to take part in the decisions that are made.
Knowing the following information can help you prepare for your initial clinic appointment:
You’ll also need some information about family members who haven’t had cancer, such as their ages and any serious illnesses they’ve had.
Some of this may be difficult. For example, if you have to speak to family members you haven’t been in touch with for a long time, or if talking about these issues may bring back painful memories for you or your relatives. Other family members may also have different views about looking into a possible genetic cause of cancers within the family.
Don’t worry if you find it too hard, or impossible, to find out all the facts. Your genetic counsellor will understand. There are cancer registries across the UK where doctors can check which cancers people have been diagnosed with in the last couple of decades, so they can use this to find out some of the information, if necessary.
Your family history will be very important in working out the chance of there being a genetic susceptibility to cancer in your family. It’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about your family history of cancer. At the consultation, the genetics specialist will draw up a simple family tree, based on the information you give them. It will show all your close biological relatives and their respective illnesses (see the example below).
Example of a family tree for a family with a suspected 'cancer gene'
View a large copy of an example of a family tree for a family with a suspected 'cancer gene'|
Writing down your questions before you go to your consultation will help you remember what you want to ask. Here are some suggestions:
It may be useful to have someone with you at the consultation, to share your thoughts with afterwards. You may choose to take a member of your family or a friend.
If you don’t understand what you’ve been told, tell your genetic counsellor so they can explain again. You can also speak to them another time if you have more questions later on. Most consultants or counsellors will send you a letter after the meeting that summarises all the important points covered in your session.
Some people with a very strong family history of breast, ovarian, bowel, womb or pancreatic cancer may be offered genetic testing. But this usually only happens if a mutation has already been found in another member of your family.
If you’ve had cancer, you may be asked to give a blood sample to try to identify a mutation.
You don’t have to decide to have a test, or make any other decisions, straight away. You can take all the time that you need to think things through. Then you can choose whether to have a genetic test, screening, or any other options your consultant suggests.
If you’re thought to be at high risk of developing cancer because of your family history, you will be offered appropriate screening, whether you choose to have a genetic test or not.
Assessing your personal risk of cancer is complex. Having a higher risk means you’re more likely to get cancer than people in the general population. But, even if you have a cancer susceptibility gene, this doesn’t mean that you will definitely get cancer. Certain questions help to assess your cancer risk:
Everybody lives with some risk of developing cancer. Even if you aren’t at increased risk, you still have the same chance of getting cancer as the general population. Most people who have cancer don’t have one of the known cancer susceptibility genes.
Assessing your risk of cancer may help you and your doctor to decide what level of prevention and screening is sensible for you. For example, if you’re at significantly increased risk of bowel cancer, you’ll be offered regular tests to check your bowel for pre-cancerous changes (bowel screening|).
Content last reviewed: 1 December 2012
Next planned review: 2015
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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