From OHC, Specialists in the Treatment of Adult Cancers and Blood Disorders

January 14, 2022

Cancer is a genetic disease, and about 10 percent of cancers are hereditary. At OHC, we not only treat cancer, we assess and manage the risk. Our cancer genetic specialists offer in-depth education, risk assessment, consultation, and genetic testing for individuals with a significant personal and/or family history of cancer. For the Berwanger family, this detailed assessment may have saved lives.

Genetic mutations, or changes, can accumulate in the body over time. Cells with a lot of mutations might not work properly and can grow uncontrollably and become cancerous.

Gene mutations that you are born with are called inherited mutations. These are passed on from generation to generation. Gene mutations can also be acquired over time. Aging, hormones, some viruses, and exposure to UV rays and environmental toxins can cause cell damage.

Major cancer types that can run in the family include breast, colon, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, and endometrial. “Inherited cancers tend to occur in those younger than age 50,” said OHC advanced practice provider and cancer genetic specialist, Hannah Kolish, MSN, APRN. “What many do not realize is that having a family history of a specific cancer type can mean that you are at an increased risk of getting another cancer. For example, a family with a history of pancreatic cancer is at a higher risk of both breast and ovarian cancers.”

In his late fifties, Jerry Berwanger was struggling with what he thought was an ulcer. When antibiotics did not help and he lost a significant amount of weight, he went to the hospital and had CT and PET scans. The imaging revealed pancreatic cancer that had spread to the liver, colon, stomach, lymph nodes, and an artery. Jerry was referred to OHC medical oncologist and hematologist, Benjamin T. Herms, MD, who ordered genetic testing for Jerry and recommended that his siblings and children also be tested.

“Jerry has the BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene 2) and CHEK2 (checkpoint kinase 2) genetic mutations,” noted Dr. Herms. “BRCA2 and CHEK2 genes are known as tumor-suppressor genes. People who inherit a mutation in these genes are at an increased risk of several cancers.”

“We lost our five-year-old son to brain cancer, and after learning of Jerry’s diagnosis and Dr. Herms’ recommendation, I immediately contacted family members about getting genetic testing,” said Jerry’s wife, Sandy. At present, Jerry and Sandy have learned that Jerry’s sister, who is in remission from breast cancer, carries the CHEK2 gene mutation. Their daughter, grandson, and granddaughter carry the BRCA2 mutation. Armed with this information, their family can discuss appropriate preventative and screening measures to reduce their cancer risk.

“My family has the upper hand now and they are taking preventative measures,” said Sandy. “Our daughter is working very closely with her doctor and a gynecologic oncologist. They are watching a breast lump closely and considering a hysterectomy.”

Individuals do not have to be existing OHC patients to request a genetic consultation, and the process is relatively simple. During the initial consultation, a genetic specialist reviews personal and family history of cancer, completes a physical exam, and makes a recommendation regarding genetic testing. Testing can be done on the same day by obtaining a saliva or blood sample. The sample can provide the following information:

  • Your likelihood of developing a specific cancer type
  • Whether a gene mutation contributed to an existing cancer diagnosis
  • Whether a cancer patient is at risk of developing the same cancer again or developing a new cancer type.

After obtaining results, OHC’s specialists interpret and explain results during a follow-up appointment. If results indicate an increased cancer risk, we can formulate a plan of action including cancer screening recommendations and lifestyle changes as preventative measures. We will also explain how the results have the potential to affect family members.

“Listen to your doctors and get the recommended testing,” advised Sandy. “Positive results don’t indicate a death sentence. They give you a chance at life and offer you more control. OHC takes your situation to heart and keeps on top of everything. When you’re there, it’s like being with family.”

It is important to know your family health history and discuss genetic counseling and testing with your doctor who will determine if a genetic risk evaluation is right for you. Individuals can schedule a genetic risk evaluation appointment with one of OHC’s cancer genetic specialists through OHC’s Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing (GREAT) program.

At OHC, we believe genetic risk evaluation is a critical component of quality cancer care and prevention. Genetic risk evaluation can ultimately lead to less cancer diagnoses, and cancer discovered in its earlier stages typically has better treatment outcomes. For more information on OHC’s leading cancer genetic specialists or to request a second opinion, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

Top picture: Sandy and Jerry Berwanger (seated) became advocates for cancer genetic testing for their family members in order to take steps toward cancer prevention. Back row: Jerry and Sandy’s daughter (Amanda), son-in-law (John), and grandson (Austin). Middle row: Granddaughter (Hailee) and Sandy

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