Genevieve White wants to know more about her family tree. And for good reason: many of her relatives on her mother’s side of the family have developed some type of cancer.

“I’m the first one in three generations of my family to survive colon cancer,” Genevieve says. “I want to know what’s going on, mostly for the sake of the next generations, like my nieces and my nephews.”

Genetics and cancer risk
Most cancer cases have no exact known cause, but about 5-10 percent occur due to a genetic abnormality. On the advice of her oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, Genevieve, a retired nurse, has chosen to undergo counseling through a process called telegenetics.

Expertise close to home
Through a partnership between WVCI and sister company Compass Oncology, genetic counselor Lisa Clark utilizes interactive video and a secure high-speed connection to meet with Genevieve for a virtual appointment. Genevieve is at WVCI in Eugene, while Lisa is at Compass Oncology in Portland.

“I think it’s excellent that I can do this by video conference. It’s so much more convenient,” Genevieve says.

Genetic counselors, like Lisa, are trained to help identify genetic mutations that exist in a family, and recommend further testing for patients who are interested in knowing more.

“And because genetic mutations are passed down from generation to generation, we want to see if there’s something going on, not just for yourself, but for your family members,” Lisa tells Genevieve.

Genetic information leads to better screening
If it’s suspected that a patient may have a hereditary component to their cancer, oncologists like Dr. Miho Teruya Dougherty often suggest genetic testing.

“If we can figure out who may be at risk, then we can screen them better and maybe prevent the cancers from happening,” Dr. Dougherty says. “For example, if someone has a 20 percent risk or higher of breast cancer in their lifetime, it’s recommended that we do an MRI of the breast. That’s not something we typically do unless it’s been determined that someone is at high risk. So, knowing more about your genetics may change how we screen you for disease.”

“There’s usually steps we can take to lower your risk-it’s not about knowing your genetic makeup just so you can worry more. Nobody needs that stress,” Lisa says. “Genetic testing helps your doctors watch you more closely if you have a genetic risk for cancer.”

Based on Genevieve’s family history, Lisa suspects she may carry a genetic mutation, which increases the risk of colon and gynecological cancers. After meeting with Lisa, Genevieve decided to undergo a simple blood test that will offer more concrete answers and potentially help protect her family and herself down the road.

Since WVCI began offering telegenetics to its patients in July of 2017, Genevieve is the 12th patient to use the service. To learn more about genetic testing and if it may be beneficial, talk with your oncologist or a member of your care team.