In the field of oncology, genetic and genomic testing have emerged as powerful tools for the personalized treatment and management of cancer. These innovative diagnostic methods provide invaluable insights into a patient’s genetic makeup as well as the tumors themselves, enabling healthcare professionals to develop targeted therapies and determine specific supplement plans, which can in turn, improve patient outcomes. But as indispensable as genetic and genomic testing is, both types of testing are not yet standard protocol for all oncologists. Their popularity is growing, to be sure, with many leading cancer research bodies recommending them in certain circumstances.
Understanding exactly what genetic and genomic testing is, what the differences between the two are, how they work, and who they can most benefit, enables the patient to be his or her own advocate if the panels are not being offered by their physician or oncologist.
Understanding Genetic Testing
Let’s start with the more well-known of the two, genetic testing. Genetic testing is a critical part of prevention and early detection. It involves analyzing a patient’s DNA to identify specific gene mutations that may be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer or inherited cancer syndromes. In actuality there are two types of genetic testing – one that is done on the person, and one that is done on the actual tumor. Genetic testing done on a person can help uncover genetic abnormalities that may be passed down through generations. Many people might know to ask for genetic testing if there is a family history of certain types of cancer in their family. A well-known example of this is testing the BRCA gene for breast cancer. But there are other scenarios where genetic testing would be important as well: If a close family member has already undergone genetic testing and carries a known cancer-causing mutation, other family members may also want to be tested to understand their own cancer risk.
Additionally, some genetic mutations are more prevalent in specific ethnic or ancestral groups. Genetic testing may be recommended for individuals from these populations, even in the absence of significant family history.
Genetic testing is not exclusively recommended as a preventative or early detection measure. There is also a type of genetic testing known as: Tumor Genetic Testing that involves analyzing the DNA from the cancer cells themselves to identify specific genetic mutations that may be driving the growth and behavior of the cancer.
Key Advantages of Tumor Genetic Testing:
- Can help oncologists determine the most appropriate and effective treatment options, especially if a person has already been diagnosed with cancer, at a younger age, or with rare or multiple cancers. For late-stage cancer patients, it can be particularly helpful in predicting the prognosis and guiding the management plan.
- Identify patients who may be eligible to participate in clinical trials testing new and experimental treatments targeting specific genetic mutations.
- Many of the newest, cutting-edge targeted therapies rely on this type of testing in order to determine which medicines are most suitable for a patient’s individual needs.
Understanding Genomic Testing
While the terms genetic (specifically, tumor or somatic genetic) and genomic testing are sometimes used interchangeably, this is not quite accurate. Tumor Genetic Testing specifically focuses on the genetic analysis of the cancer cells (tumor) only, whereas Genomic Testing involves analyzing a person’s entire genome – the complete set of their DNA, including all their genes.
The purpose of genomic testing in cancer patients is to identify specific genetic mutations driving the growth and behavior of their cancer.
Genomic testing can be especially important for late-stage cancer patients as a way of identifying their best treatment options.
In identifying specific genetic mutations in the tumor that are driving its growth, these mutations can be targeted with specialized drugs and other targeted therapies.These treatments aim to attack the cancer cells based on their unique genetic vulnerabilities, offering a more effective and potentially less toxic option for late-stage patients.
In some cases, cancer cells develop resistance to certain treatments over time. Genomic testing can help identify new genetic changes that lead to treatment resistance.
Genomic knowledge enables oncologists to adapt the treatment plan and find alternative therapies to combat the resistant cancer cells. Additionally, genomic testing can be done periodically to monitor changes in the tumor’s genetic profile as the cancer progresses. This too helps healthcare providers keep track of the disease and adjust treatment strategies accordingly.
How and Where Genetic and Genomic Testing is Done
Genetic and genomic testing can be conducted through a simple blood sample or, in some cases, a cheek swab. These samples are then sent to specialized laboratories where genetic experts analyze the DNA.
Results from these tests can take several weeks, as the process involves meticulous examination to ensure accuracy. It is important to note that genomic testing for late-stage cancer patients is typically done on a tumor sample taken through a biopsy or other procedures. While many oncologists have started to offer genetic and genomic testing for whom it would benefit, it has not yet become standard procedure.
If you think you may benefit from one of these tests, either as a preventive measure or as part of your treatment plan, it is better to ask sooner rather than later. Coming to your physician with a plan and the questions you would like answered will enable you to advocate for these potentially life-saving tests.
Enhancing Your Cancer Care: Personalized Protocols and Complementary Therapies
Working with an integrative healthcare professional is an excellent way to develop a protocol that works best for your individual needs. Heal Navigator’s integrative oncology nurses can help you explore available tests and complementary therapies, creating personalized protocols for improved outcomes and reduced side effects.