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Busting common misconceptions about genetic testing

In my work as a genetic counsellor, I often meet patients with misconceptions about genetic testing. Genetic testing is often offered to individuals with childhood cancer to understand if it is caused by specific gene changes (mutations), as part of a hereditary cancer syndrome. With Childhood Cancer Awareness Month coming up in September, I hope to raise awareness of genetic testing by debunking myths and misconceptions about genetic testing and counselling.

1. Cancer cannot be inherited or passed down in the family

While most cancers are not inherited, approximately 10% of cancers are inherited and can run in families. Families with inherited cancer have a specific gene change or mutation that increases their risk of cancer. Genetic testing can be done to identify the gene change and who in the family has it.

2. There is nothing I can do if I have a gene change (mutation) associated with an increased risk of cancer

Thankfully, there are ways to manage and reduce your risk of cancer if you have a gene change associated with an increased risk of cancer. The first step is to be aware of what cancers you have an increased risk of developing by undergoing genetic testing. With that knowledge, you can take proactive steps to undergo regular screening to detect any cancers at an earlier and more treatable stage. If necessary, interventions like medication or surgeries can additionally be considered to reduce the risk of cancer.

3. If I already have cancer, there is no point in doing genetic testing to understand if my cancer is hereditary

Cancer genetic testing is offered to people with cancer as the results can:  

  • Help doctors to guide and personalise your treatment and any surgery in a way that is most beneficial to you.
  • Indicate if you are at risk of other cancers so that you can manage those risks.
  • Inform family members if there is a genetic condition running in the family, so they can get early screening for that cancer risk.  

4. If my child or children look like me, they must have inherited the same gene change (mutation) that increases my risk of cancer  

Genes that govern your appearance are different from the genes that affect cancer risk. If you have a gene change that increases your risk of cancer, all first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) have a 50% (1 in 2 chance) of inheriting the same gene change as you.

 5. Genetic testing is very expensive

The cost of general cancer genetic testing has decreased over the years. At the Cancer Genetics Service at NCCS, we try to make genetic testing accessible to people who need it by tapping on available subsidies.

For the first time in Singapore, key buildings and landmarks in Singapore were lit in green and blue to raise awareness of Neurofibromatosis, a commonly undiagnosed genetic condition. The Helix Bridge, One Raffles Place, the National Gallery, the Singapore Flyer, Republic Plaza, and Ocean Financial Centre participated in the global movement to 'Shine a Light on NF'. The initiative was spearheaded by NCCS to mark World Neurofibromatosis (NF) Awareness Month in May 2022.

After a public forum on the disease on 14 May 2022, patients and their families with NCCS' Cancer Genetics Service team gathered to view the light up around the Marina Bay Water Promenade to commemorate World Neurofibromatosis (NF) Awareness Month.

Neurofibromatosis is a genetic condition that causes tumours to grow on nerves in the spinal cord, brain and other parts of the body. The most common type of Neurofibromatosis is NF1, which is estimated to occur in one in every 3,000 individuals globally. Tumours are usually non-cancerous but has a small chance of becoming cancerous. Early screening and diagnosis allows timely management and treatment, contributing to better outcomes for NF1 patients.

Key buildings and landmarks in Singapore were lit in green and blue to raise awareness of Neurofibromatosis, a commonly undiagnosed genetic condition, in May 2022. Photo credit: Lim Kay Burn

You can visit the NCCS website, here, for more information on NF1.