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Understanding Gene Testing

What are today's options?

We already know a lot about cancer prevention and early detection, and we don't need to wait for a gene test to put this information to good use. Regular checkups by the doctor - including mammography, prostate exams, skin exams, or Pap tests as appropriate - coupled with a healthy lifestyle are important for everyone. So is avoiding known causes of cancer: cigarette smoke, too much sunlight, unnecessary radiation. Persons who have a family history of cancer should be especially conscientious about observing these precautions, and they should make sure their doctor is aware of their family history. People with a very strong family history - a number of close relatives who have had cancer, especially if it occurred at a young age and in more than one generation - may want to schedule more frequent checkups and begin them in their twenties or thirties. Prophylactic surgery is an option, although persons considering it should realize that it brings no guarantee that cancer won't occur. Another option is to contact one of the research programs now getting under way.

It isn't necessary, though, for gene tests to arrive on the scene to give serious thought to the idea. If a gene test were available, would you want to have it? Would you want your family to be tested? What actions would you be prepared to take? And what should society be doing about the issues of privacy and discrimination? The present moment, when genes are being discovered but before tests become widely available, offers a small window of opportunity to prepare for the future.

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