Director of Genetics, Medcan
In the past, health care providers attempting to determine the likelihood of an individual developing a certain condition, like breast or ovarian cancer, drew only on family history and lifestyle factors. Today, advances in genetic screening have revolutionized the landscape of preventive health services — especially for women.
“Our ability to analyze large numbers of genes cost-effectively and efficiently has significantly increased access to these technologies,” says Allison Hazell, Director of Genetics at Medcan. As a leading private health care provider, Medcan offers an extensive suite of wellness services, including a comprehensive annual health assessment. “Universally, more people today are coming forward for genetic testing, allowing us to interpret results confidently,” says Hazell. “What we thought was rare is actually more common across the world.”
What is preventive genetic health screening and what can it detect?
“Preventive genetic testing offers a proactive rather than reactive solution to health management. When it comes to cancer, this type of testing can identify one’s risk early on, making it more easily treatable,” says Hazell.
Proactive genetic testing can reveal an individual’s inherited risks for certain cancers, cardiovascular conditions, pregnancy outcomes, and other health conditions. One of the most common reasons women seek out genetic testing at Medcan is to test the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. After actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she carried the BRCA1 mutation, which puts one at greater risk of ovarian and breast cancers, one Canadian publication found that the number of women referred for genetic counselling increased by 90%.1
“Most women don’t realize that there are about 20 genes that we know of that can be associated with an increased risk for breast cancer,” says Hazell. “Medcan offers testing on a panel of genetic variance, which includes BRCA1 and BRCA2 along with over 140 other genes.” Best of all, these tests can yield actionable medical results. “For example, women who are identified as having an increased chance of developing breast cancer may qualify for annual breast MRI screening, in addition to a mammogram, or may be offered surgical solutions to mitigate the risk,” adds Hazell. “Or, if their cancer risk is linked to uterine (endometrial) cancer, they may choose to have a hysterectomy proactively.”
Most women don’t realize that there are about 20 genes that we know of that can be associated with an increased risk for breast cancer.Allison Hazell, Director of Genetics at Medcan
The Medcan model of responsible access to genetic testing
Under OHIP, individuals are traditionally only offered funded genetic testing if they have a strong family history of cancer or if they’ve been diagnosed with a rare cancer at a young age. Even in these cases, genetics clinics often have long wait periods, in terms of both access to appointments for testing and turnaround time for results.
As awareness around the efficacy of genetic screening grows, the testing marketplace is becoming increasingly saturated with direct-to-consumer testing services. While this route is faster than going through a traditional clinic, it’s also marred by a serious caveat — the genetic testing offered by these services isn’t comprehensive, and individuals are typically not well-equipped to interpret the results of their tests.
“Genetic testing is complex. While companies marketing these services will often use terms like ‘simple’ and ‘easy,’ this is only true when it comes to buying the test,” says Dr. Janice Weiss, a family physician at Medcan. “The interpretation of the test is not always straightforward and may lead one to a false sense of security.”
Medcan offers extensive testing with professionals, “If there’s a health risk that needs to be addressed, the genetic counsellor will work with our medical geneticist, as well as the client’s primary care provider, to ensure that an appropriate management and screening plan is put in place and that any necessary referrals are made,” says Hazell. “This integrated approach to genetic testing in a primary care setting is incredibly unique and offers significant value to the individual.”
Opting into genetic testing is a personal decision, but for women who want to avoid surprises in their health journey down the line, it’s a uniquely effective option.
1 J Genet Couns. 2016 Dec; 25(6):1309-1316. Epub 2016 May 26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27228984