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Cancer Health Center

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Cancer Genetics Overview (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Genetic Counseling

Genetic counseling is a process of communication between genetics professionals and patients with the goal of providing individuals and families with information on the relevant aspects of their genetic health, available testing and management options, and support as they move toward understanding and incorporating this information into their daily lives. Genetic counseling generally involves the following six steps:

  1. Family and medical history assessment.
  2. Analysis of genetic information.
  3. Communication of genetic information.
  4. Education about inheritance, genetic testing, management, risk reduction, resources, and research opportunities.
  5. Supportive counseling to facilitate informed choices and adaptation to the risk or condition.
  6. Follow-up.[1]

Genetic evaluation involves an interaction with a medical geneticist or other genetics professional and may include a physical examination and diagnostic testing, in addition to genetic counseling. The principles of voluntary and informed decision making, nondirective and noncoercive counseling, and protection of client confidentiality and privacy are central to the philosophy of genetic counseling.[1,2,3,4,5] (Refer to the PDQ summary on Cancer Genetics Risk Assessment and Counseling for more information on the nature and history of genetic counseling.)

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, genetic counseling expanded to include discussion of genetic testing for cancer risk, as more genes associated with inherited cancer risk were discovered. Cancer genetic counseling often involves a multidisciplinary team of health professionals that may include a genetic counselor, an advanced practice genetics nurse, or a medical geneticist; a mental health professional; and various medical experts such as an oncologist, surgeon, or internist. The process of counseling may require a number of visits to address medical, genetic testing, and psychosocial issues. Even when cancer risk counseling is initiated by an individual, inherited cancer risk has implications for the entire family. Because genetic risk affects an unknown number of biological relatives, contact with these relatives is often essential to collect accurate family and medical histories. Cancer genetic counseling may involve several family members, some of whom will have had cancer and others who have not.

The impact of risk assessment and predisposition genetic testing is improved health outcomes. The information derived from risk assessment and/or genetic testing allows the health care provider to tailor an individual approach to health promotion and optimize long-term health outcomes through the identification of at-risk individuals before cancer develops. The health care provider can thus intervene earlier either to reduce the risk or diagnose a cancer at an earlier stage, when the chances for effective treatment are greatest. The information may be used to modify the management approach to an initial cancer, clarify the risks of other cancers, or predict the response of an existing cancer to specific forms of treatment, all of which may alter treatment recommendations and long-term follow-up.


  1. Resta R, Biesecker BB, Bennett RL, et al.: A new definition of Genetic Counseling: National Society of Genetic Counselors' Task Force report. J Genet Couns 15 (2): 77-83, 2006.
  2. Baker DL, Schuette JL, Uhlmann WR, eds.: A Guide to Genetic Counseling. New York, NY: Wiley-Liss, 1998.
  3. Bartels DM, LeRoy BS, Caplan AL, eds.: Prescribing Our Future: Ethical Challenges in Genetic Counseling. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.
  4. Kenen RH: Genetic counseling: the development of a new interdisciplinary occupational field. Soc Sci Med 18 (7): 541-9, 1984.
  5. Kenen RH, Smith AC: Genetic counseling for the next 25 years: models for the future. J Genet Couns 4 (2): 115-24, 1995.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

    Last Updated: May 28, 2015
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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