Most cancer occurs by chance. However, some people have a higher risk of developing cancer because of a gene error that runs in the family. Knowing about hereditary risks for cancer may help you or your family make informed decisions about cancer screening and risk reduction.

A genetic counselor can meet with you to discuss cancer in your personal or family history, or both. You’ll learn about your cancer risks, screening, genetic testing and ways to reduce risk. This section answers some common questions about hereditary cancer risk and genetic testing. Is genetic counseling for cancer risk recommended for me?

Genetic counseling to understand your risk for cancer is recommended for people with:

  • A personal or family history, or both, of:
  • Cancer diagnosis, such as breast, colon or uterine cancer, before 50 years old.
  • More than 2 relatives with the same type of cancer.
  • More than 2 relatives with related cancers, such as colon and uterine cancer or breast and ovarian cancer.
  • More than 1 cancer in the same person.
  • Rare cancers, such as ovarian cancer or male breast cancer.
  • More than 10 colon polyps during their lifetime.
  • Known hereditary cancer syndrome in the family, such as a relative with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.
  • Questions about your risk or your children’s risk of developing cancer.

Why should I consider genetic counseling?

Genetic counseling may help you:

  • Understand your risk of developing cancer— or, if you already have cancer, for developing a new cancer.
  • Understand family members’ risk of developing cancer.
  • Make informed decisions about cancer screening or options to reduce your risk for cancer.

What’s genetic testing?

Usually, genetic testing involves drawing blood. The blood is tested for inherited changes in one or more genes that may contribute to a family history of cancer.

If you have a cancer diagnosis, genetic testing may help you and your care team make decisions about treatment and surgery. Check with your health insurance provider to confirm whether genetic counseling and genetic testing are covered by your plan.

What does the appointment involve?

Usually, genetic counseling includes 1 to 2 office visits—a 90-minute consultation and a shorter follow-up visit if you have genetic testing.

How do I prepare for my appointment?

  • The genetic counselors will ask about your family history. Gather information about your children, siblings, nieces, nephews, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, including the types of cancers they had and their ages when those cancers occurred.
  • Bring any results from other genetic tests from your relatives who’ve been tested already.
  • Plan to arrive 10 minutes before your appointment time to allow time to check-in.
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