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Published on October 13, 2017

people of diverse ethnicities

Cancer Genetic Testing & Genomic Medicine – What’s the Difference?

With amazing advances in technology, cancer screening and treatment can now be personalized beyond age and gender to the smallest, most precise level possible – the genetic information encoded in DNA.

As more is discovered about the role that genes play in whether or not a person develops cancer, the amount of information and options available can be confusing. Today, we hope to help you clarify the difference between two of those options: cancer genetic testing and genomic medicine.

In the most simplistic terms – cancer genetic testing is about preventing and screening for cancer; whereas, cancer genomic testing is about treating cancer.

Yet, there’s so much more to consider.  

Genetic Testing and Counseling

All cancer is caused by genetic mutations – or changes in a gene. In most cases, these mutations occur over time due to lifestyle and environmental factors such as diet, exercise, smoking, hormones, etc.

However, sometimes these genetic mutations are inherited from one generation to the next.  And that’s what cancer genetic testing looks for – whether or not you have an inherited genetic mutation that puts you at a higher risk for developing certain cancers.

“It’s important to note that we rarely find inherited gene mutations,” says Kayla York, LCGC, a licensed genetic counselor at Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls.  “For example, only 5 – 10 percent of breast cancer patients carry an inherited risk for breast cancer.”

Although the chances of having an inherited genetic mutation are low, York says it’s important to consider genetic testing if your personal or family history includes any of the following:

  • Cancer that occurs at an early age (less than 50 years old)
  • Jewish ancestry and family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • More than one cancer in the same family member
  • Multiple family members with the same type of cancer or related cancers, such as breast/ovarian/pancreatic or colon/uterine/ovarian
  • Rare cancers, such as male breast cancer, medullary thyroid cancer or ovarian cancer

“The benefit of genetic testing is that if you do have an inherited genetic mutation, we can recommend additional screenings that would allow us to detect cancer earlier when it’s more treatable,” says York. “You may also have options for preventive surgeries that would stop a certain cancer from growing altogether.”

Because an inherited genetic mutation is passed on from generation to generation, it also impacts your family. York guides discussions with and provides recommendations on cancer prevention and screening for family members too.

Genomic Medicine

While genetic testing helps you identify whether or not you’re at higher risk for developing certain cancers, genomic medicine – also known as precision oncology at Avera – uses genetic information to guide treatment after a cancer diagnosis.

“With cancer genomic testing, we look at the genome of the tumor and how its genes interact together. This provides us with information about what’s causing the cancer to grow and survive,” describes Kirstin Williams, PhD, CNP, a certified nurse practitioner at Avera Cancer Institute Center for Precision Oncology. “Our goal is to recommend more precise treatments by finding out which genes have mutated – or changed – and if there are drugs available that specifically target those changes.”

After receiving a blood sample and tumor biopsy, Avera’s specialized precision oncology team develops recommendations on potential ways to treat your specific type of tumor based on what mutations are found. They may also be able to identify which treatments will not work against your tumor – saving time and money.

“We’ve seen impressive results, yet there’s so much more to discover,” adds Williams. “It’s definitely the way of the future with cancer care.”

Collaborative Care for Your Cancer Journey

 Although genomic medicine and genetic testing are two separate services, offered by two separate teams, they collaborate and work seamlessly with your Avera cancer care team to make sure patients receive the best care possible.

If you have questions or want to learn more about genetic testing or genomic medicine at Avera, you can call the Avera Cancer Institute Navigation Center 24/7 at 855-853-4398.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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