The Importance of Genetic Testing in Cancer Research

It’s common for cancer patients and their families to feel helpless, as if their futures and those of their loved ones are entirely dependent on physicians and medications. Genetic testing is one way for cancer patients and their relatives to regain a sense of control over the horrible disease, and make a valuable contribution toward improving cancer detection, new cancer treatments and understanding cancer prevention methods.

One of the most effective ways for cancer researchers to learn why a type of cancer occurs (an important step in discovering new cancer treatments) is to study the genes of cancer patients and those who share their DNA profile.

How is Genetic Testing used to Advance Cancer Research?

When researchers study the genes from a large sampling of individuals who have or are susceptible to certain cancers, they’re able to detect patterns, or genetic markers. This information can be used to predict the likelihood that someone will develop a disease, as well as to develop cancer screening tests, prevention protocols and various cancers treatments.

Because of cancer genetic testing, researchers from the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics (DCEG) have made important discoveries that have advanced cancer research and cancer treatment. For example:

  • Researchers studying the genes of a patient with nevoid basal-cell carcinoma syndrome identified the gene responsible for the skin cancer. That finding culminated in the first U.S. Food & Drug Administration-approved biological agent therapy for advanced and metastatic basal cell skin cancer.
  • Researchers studying breast cancer patients’ genes discovered that a gene mutation on the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene increases the likelihood of developing the disease. Today, people who discover they have this gene have the option of choosing elective mastectomies to reduce their risks of breast cancer.
  • Researchers studying the genes of dyskeratosis congenita patients discovered that 60 percent have the same genetic mutation. That finding led to a new diagnostic test for the disease and new criteria for evaluating potential bone-marrow donors.
  • Researchers studying monoclonal B-cell lymphomatosis patients discovered that the disease is a precursor for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). That finding paved the way for screening tests now used to diagnosis CLL in its early stages, which allows patients to begin treatment before the disease advances.

The research continues. DCEG researchers are currently conducting several studies, including:

  • Studies of melanoma-prone families to search for “melanoma susceptibility” genes.
  • Studies of patients with a group of rare genetic blood disorders known as inherited bone marrow failure syndromes to learn how these cancers develop.
  • Studies of children with a rare lung tumor, pleuropulmonary blastoma, to determine if changes in a particular gene contribute to this lung cancer.

Genetic testing isn’t foolproof, but it is a powerful tool for cancer patients who want to contribute to science, and individuals who want to assess their risks.

How Is Genetic Testing Conducted?

Most physicians require a patient to undergo genetic counseling before undergoing genetic testing for cancer because the results of your cancer genetic test may yield unwelcome news, and patients should be prepared.

In most cases, the process of undergoing genetic testing is surprisingly simple and painless. Typically, the person being tested provides either:

  • A blood sample (usually several tubes taken from a vein in your arm)
  • A sample of DNA obtained from saliva, skin cells or cheek cells (obtained by swabbing the inside of the cheek)
  • Genetic testing for a fetus may require the mother to have an amniocentesis, although non-invasive prenatal tests are also available

The sample is sent to a genetic testing laboratory for analysis, where they will determine your sample to be positive, negative or inconclusive. Within two – three weeks, the detailed results will be sent to the physician of genetic counselor who ordered the testing.

Can anyone be Candidate for Cancer Research Genetic Testing?

Genetic testing leads to genetic screening tests. Individuals with family histories of certain types of cancer (such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, and others) who are interested in learning if they possess a certain hereditary gene mutation — and who are mentally prepared for the possibility of a positive result — are candidates for genetic testing.

Features suggestive of hereditary cancers include:

  • Any individual diagnosed with cancer prior to age 50
  • Any individual who has developed more than one cancer
  • Any individual with a rare type of cancer (ovarian, male breast cancer, pancreatic)
  • An individual with two or more family members diagnosed with the same cancer
  • A family member with an identifiable gene mutation known to increase the risk of cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry with a personal or family history of  cancer

Individuals who already have cancer and want to contribute to research that could lead to advances in detection and treatments are also candidates.

If you or someone in your family thinks they need to have cancer genetic testing performed, it is important to review our Genetic Risk Assessment section with your doctor or genetic counselor, or if you are located in the Maryland or Washington DC area, schedule an appointment with the Maryland Oncology Hematology team for a more in depth discussion.

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Linda M. Burrell, M.D. Announces Retirement January 29, 2021

Maryland Oncology Hematology is sad to announce that Dr. Linda Burrell will be retiring from practice effective January 29, 2021.   Dr. Burrell has been a pillar of our organization and has provided exceptional patient care to our community for over three decades.  Her clinical excellence and fierce dedication to her patients has established her as one of the leading physicians in our region with Dr. Burrell being recognized as a Top Doctor by Washingtonian Magazine.  More importantly, as you will often hear from her patients, she has set the benchmark for what it means to offer compassionate care in the most difficult of times.

We at Maryland Oncology Hematology will always value Dr. Burrell for her many contributions to our organization. Her hard work, commitment and dedication set an example for all of those around her. While we will miss her greatly, we know that she will continue to be an example we can all follow in both our professional and personal lives. She has made each of us better as individuals and our organization is now a better place because she was a part of it.  She is an irreplaceable member of our team and we all thank her for her years of service.

All of us at Maryland Oncology Hematology look forward to continuing the incredible legacy Dr. Burrell has established in our community. For her existing patients, Dr. Burrell will be coordinating transition of your care.  For her referring physicians, our group will be happy to provide care for your new patient referrals.  Our entire team of physicians and administrators are ready to assist in any way possible and to answer any questions you may have.

Please join us as we celebrate Dr. Burrell and her many accomplishments and wish her well as she begins this next chapter!

 

Thank You,

The Maryland Oncology Hematology Team

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5 New Year’s Resolutions for Cancer Patients

Making and implementing New Year’s resolutions that can improve your lifestyle while undergoing cancer treatment can seem too difficult to tackle. But it can be done! Working towards maximizing your emotional and physical strength during this time is an excellent goal with long-term benefits.

There are several ways you can improve your lifestyle, helping you to better cope with the challenges involved in battling cancer. Here are five ideas and how you can incorporate them into your routine this new year.

1. Regular Exercise

For many cancer patients, the idea of following an exercise program while you’re going through cancer treatment is overwhelming. But even small amounts of exercise – such as walking around the block or 15 minutes of yoga – will provide long-term benefits.

According to the American Cancer Society, research shows that exercise is safe for most cancer patients. Planning exercise into your daily routine can help with how you feel physically and emotionally. Patients reported:

  • Better physical functioning
  • Less fatigue
  • Less anxiety

If you are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer treatment, you should begin an exercise program at a lower intensity and build it gradually. The National Cancer Comprehensive Network urges patients to engage in a moderate workout program such as a daily walk combined with strength training using light weights. Moderate exercise is proven to boost immunity, which is essential for patients battling cancer.

If you regularly exercised before cancer treatment, try not to compare your current pace and workout intensity to what you used to do. Listen to your body and be as consistent as you can.

2. Engage in Meditation

Meditation is recommended for cancer patients because it helps manage anxiety, sleep problems, pain, high blood pressure, and fatigue. You can choose from several methods of meditation – a few examples are: mindfulness meditation, focused meditation, or prayerful meditation. Although side effects of these techniques are rare, experts say patients should inform their oncologist of any complementary therapies, such as meditation, before starting. There are resources for helping you learn how to meditate if this is something new to you. The Mindfulness Center and Hope Connections for Cancer Support, both in the Bethesda area, offer programs that can help you with understanding how to use meditation to produce benefits during and after cancer treatment.

3. Follow a Nutritious Diet

Food may not always sound good, or side effects of treatment can make it hard to eat. But taking in the right amount of calories is still really important for keeping up your strength and maintaining a healthy weight. What you eat while going through cancer treatment may be a little different from your typical diet, but try to keep it as nutritious as possible.

When possible, select healthy sources of fat including avocado, olive oil, nuts and fish such as salmon. Stay away from trans fats and foods high in cholesterol, such as processed snacks, fast food, and shortening. Here are a few suggestions that can help you with following a healthy diet during cancer treatment and beyond:

  • Eat protein every day. It will help you feel full, maintain your strength and rebuild tissue during your cancer treatments. This might include nuts, yogurt, cheese, or eggs.
  • The American Cancer Society suggests eating at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, including citrus fruits and dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables. Colorful vegetables and fruits and plant-based foods contain many natural health-promoting substances. During cancer treatment try to cook vegetables before eating them.
  • Use liquid meal replacements if it’s hard to get the right amount of nutrients every day. This is especially helpful if you have dry mouth.
  • Try eating smaller meals more often so that you can keep up your strength without feeling overly full. Keeping food in your stomach can also counter nausea.

If you find that some of your favorite foods don’t taste quite right during cancer treatment, that’s OK. Eat healthy foods that taste good and make sure to keep them stocked up in the house.

4. Cultivate an “Attitude of Gratitude”

Because of the mind-body connection, a grateful, positive attitude can make a decided difference in how you feel. Thankfulness helps people deal with adversity and is consistently linked to greater happiness. Cure Today magazine encourages cancer patients to find three things each day for which they are grateful. Write them down so you can revisit them when times are hard. This habit will grow stronger the more you engage in it.

5. Let Others Help You

You don’t often hear of resolutions that include “allowing others to help me.” But as a cancer survivor, this is something that you can commit to trying. It’s not only good for you but gives your family members and friends a way to feel like they are helping you. It can also help you avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Allow loved ones to bring you a meal or stop by, even if your house isn’t in perfect order. Joining a cancer support group may also be helpful. These organizations offer the opportunity to share feelings with people who can understand and relate to your situation, and you can do the same for them. Studies show belonging to such groups makes cancer patients feel more hopeful and less anxious. They are available in person and online.

Maryland has an array of cancer support organizations, such as those offered by the Baltimore Cancer Support Group, Hope Connections for Cancer Support, The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, and the Cancer Support Community. Your oncology team can put you in touch with those who can provide an additional list of cancer support groups available in the Maryland and Washington D.C. communities, even groups that might be for your specific type of cancer.

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