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Cancer Genetics Risk Assessment and Counseling (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications

Table 3. Comparison of Federal Legislation Addressing Genetic Coverage, Limitations, and Protections continued...

In October 2008, in response to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (NDAA) Title XVI: "Wounded Warrior Matters," a policy memorandum was issued providing supplemental and clarifying guidance on implementing disability-related provisions, including new language related to hereditary or genetic diseases. The policy memorandum states, "Any hereditary or genetic disease shall be evaluated to determine whether clear and unmistakable evidence demonstrates that the disability existed before the Service member's entrance on active duty and was not aggravated by military service. However, even if the conclusion is that the disability was incurred prior to entry on active duty, any aggravation of that disease, incurred while the member is entitled to basic pay, beyond that determined to be due to natural progression shall be determined to be service aggravated." The interpretation of this policy is uncertain at this time.[39]

Case scenarios involving ELSI issues in cancer genetic testing

There are multiple psychosocial, ethical, and legal issues to consider in cancer genetic testing. Genetic tests for germline mutations have social and family implications. In addition to prevention and surveillance options, genetic testing should be offered in conjunction with genetic education and counseling.[18,19] A comprehensive strategy for dealing with ethical dilemmas can incorporate a shared approach to decision making, including open discussion, planning, and involvement of the family.[5] To integrate the different perspectives of bioethics, law, and psychosocial influences, the following scenarios can help health care providers become familiar with commonly encountered dilemmas; it is imperative, however, that the clinician evaluate each patient and his or her situation on a case-by-case basis. These case scenarios were adopted from "Counseling about Cancer: Strategies for Genetic Counseling;" the in-depth case examples are extensively discussed in the original text.[2]

Duty to warn versus privacy

A patient with known family history of breast cancer is interested in testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation. In reviewing her family history, the health care provider realizes that the patient is not aware of an additional rare but hereditary cancer mutation in a second-degree relative, which the health center tested and confirmed in the past. After talking with her family, the patient is unable to confirm the details of the second hereditary cancer mutation and again expresses interest in BRCA1/2 testing. Does the health care provider have a "duty to warn" the patient of the unknown cancer susceptibility gene in the family, at the risk of disclosing private patient information? The following issues are important to consider in resolving this case.

  1. Preserving the confidentiality of the relative and informing the patient of her cancer risk are both important goals. In general, the health care professional has a "Duty to warn" when there is a high likelihood of harm if not warned, the person at risk is identifiable, the harm of nondisclosure is greater than disclosure, and only the information necessary to prevent harm is released. (Refer to the Privacy and Confidentiality: Disclosure of Patient's Genetic Information section of this summary for more information.)
  2. It is possible that the benefit outweighs the harm of informing the patient of the second cancer syndrome because the monitoring and management of the rare cancer are different from guidelines for the general population. Additionally both parties are identifiable. An option is to contact the relative for permission to disclose the genetic test result to the patient in question.
  3. If it is not possible to obtain permission to disclose, it is possible to inform the patient that she meets clinical criteria for the hereditary cancer syndrome without releasing specific information about the genetic test results of the relative.
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