Head and neck cancers account for about 3-5% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States1. There are many different types of head and neck cancers. Some head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco and alcohol use or certain viruses, while others may have an underlying genetic cause.
When you think about your family, are there many people who have had cancer? If there is a strong history of cancer in your family, you may wish to meet with a genetic counselor.
Some of the patterns that genetic counselors look for in a family history include:
- Two or more close relatives with cancer
- Cancer diagnosed before age 50
- More than one diagnosis of cancer in an individual (second primary)
- Several generations with cancer
- Unusual or rare cancers
- Ethnicity (for example, Ashkenazi Jewish)
Genetic counselors look for these patterns to determine if cancer could be hereditary. "Hereditary" means that there could be a genetic cause for the cancer in the family. When we think about genetics, we are talking about DNA. DNA is the instruction book for our body. Just like a book, DNA can be broken down into chapters, sentences, and letters. Genes are the sentences of DNA.
One type of head and neck cancer is thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is a relatively common type of cancer. About 1% (or 1 in 100) people in the United States develop thyroid cancer2. There are several different types of thyroid cancer, based on how they look under the microscope. When certain types of thyroid cancer are diagnosed at early ages (under 50 years of age), or if there is a pattern of thyroid cancer in the family, it may be hereditary.
One example of a hereditary thyroid cancer condition is "Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2" also known as MEN2. Individuals who have MEN2 have increased chances to develop a certain type of thyroid cancer called medullary thyroid cancer and other health conditions. If you have or had medullary thyroid cancer, you may wish to talk to your doctor about meeting with a genetic counselor to learn more about MEN2.
There are many other types of head and neck cancers other than thyroid cancer, some of which can be hereditary. If there is a pattern of head and neck cancer in your family, and relatives have been diagnosed at early ages, you may wish to talk to your doctor about meeting with a genetic counselor.
What is Genetic Counseling?
Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical concerns in their family. Genetic counselors help people make informed decisions about their health and genetic information.
Genetic counselors work in a variety of areas including pregnancy care and planning, pediatrics, cancer, and others. Genetic counseling is specific to your needs and the information you are seeking. Carle Cancer Center offers genetic counseling services. Your team can work with you to set up an appointment.
How to Prepare for Your Cancer Genetic Counseling Appointment
A typical genetic counseling visit includes:
- Discussion of medical history
- Collection of family history
- Discussion of how cancer risks can be passed down in a family
- Discussion of cancer prevention options and screening
- Review of genetic testing options
- Provide supportive counseling
People who have genetic counseling may have one visit, while other people meet with a genetic counselor every few years. Since information about cancer genetics is growing, and new testing options or recommendations may become available, you may wish to follow-up with a genetic counselor even if you had genetic counseling in the past.
You may want to gather some information before meeting with a genetic counselor. You may not be able to get all of the details, but the more information you have, the more your genetic counselor can help.
- Ask your relatives about medical conditions in the family, especially if someone has had cancer. How old were they when the cancer was diagnosed? Has anyone had genetic testing in the family?
- Gather any medical records of your cancer history or family history, especially if testing, diagnosis, or treatment were not performed at Carle Foundation Hospital.
- Bring a list of questions to your appointment.