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Genetic cancer screening poses dilemma for patients

January 23, 1996
Web posted at: 6:20 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Christine Negroni

NEW YORK (CNN) -- If a doctor could tell you whether you might be at high risk for a particular cancer, would you want to know?

Advances in genetic screening make such predictions possible. But the revelations can be painful.


Case in point: Andrea, a healthy, 30-year-old who worries about her health. A medical family tree showing a history of breast cancer among her relatives prompted Andrea to seek advice from Yale University's cancer genetics program.

"I don't care if I have 10 or 20 years, I want to know about it," Andrea said.

But the dilemma for Andrea and for others in similar situations is that while high-tech examinations of genes may tell them they're likely to develop cancer, doctors often have little to offer in terms of prevention or treatment.

The information patients receive from their DNA could be shattering, which is why genetic screening for hereditary cancers at Yale University always includes conversations with a professional genetic counselor.

Ellen Matloff

"We want to make sure that we do this carefully and cautiously for the patient and for their entire family," said Ellen Matloff, a genetic counselor at Yale University.

Geneticists worry that it won't be too long before the thousand or so counselors now trained for genetic cancer screenings won't be nearly enough to accommodate public demand for a look into the future via their own DNA.

A flood of genetic discoveries makes what can be learned from such tests applicable to more people and more diseases, which is why over the past five years job openings for genetic counselors have tripled.


But some professionals have reservations. "I don't know how I feel about labeling someone as cancer prone. Especially if we don't even know for sure right now what they're lifetime risk is," said Dr. Allen Bale of Yale University.

While the counseling Andrea received was designed to supplement genetic testing, she has decided that counseling is as far as she's going to go. For now at least, she has opted to wait before submitting her genes to closer scrutiny.

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