uncovering hidden risks

With certain cancers, the disease might not stop with the person diagnosed.

About 1 in 10 people who develop cancer were diagnosed because of a gene mutation causing a hereditary cancer syndrome that was new in the individual or inherited.

"It's critical for us to help identify patients with hereditary predisposition to cancer and implement successful screening strategies to discover cancer at an early stage when its more easily treated," said Stephen Hunger, M.D., Director of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders (CCBD) at Children's Colorado.

Navigating the complexities of genetic testing without guidance can be overwhelming for families already facing a cancer diagnosis. That's why the CCBD created the Hereditary Cancer Risk Assessment Clinic. The clinic – one of only a few in the country – is staffed by a genetic counselor dedicated to pediatric cancer.

"It's straightforward for a physician to order genetic testing and get results but it doesn't explain or give context for everyday people to understand," Dr. Hunger said. "We absolutely must provide the proper counseling."

Genetic counselor Kami Wolfe Schneider, M.S., CSG, helps families learn how cancer can be inherited, understand their risks to develop cancer, and what steps can be taken to prevent and detect cancer as early as possible. She helps coordinate and interpret genetic testing when desired and appropriate, and she assists with referrals to appropriate care providers.

"In my dream world, every child diagnosed with cancer should have genetic counseling," Schneider said. "We arm families with tools they need."

Dr. Hunger co-authored a Children's Oncology Group study recently published in Nature Genetics, which found evidence of a genetic basis of hypodiploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

"The cure rate for hypodiploid ALL is only about half that obtained overall for children with ALL. The findings of this study are very important and have the potential to impact how this very high-risk subset of childhood ALL is treated," said Dr. Hunger, Chair of the Children's Oncology Group's ALL Committee.