Cancer is a genetic disease
Genes are in the DNA of each cell in your body. They control how the cell functions, including: How quickly it grows. How often it divides. How long it lives.
Changes in the DNA, or mutations, happen often. Mutations may be beneficial, harmful, or neutral. This depends where in the gene the change occurs. Typically, the body corrects most mutations.
A single mutation will likely not cause cancer. Usually, cancer occurs from multiple mutations over a lifetime. That is why cancer occurs more often in older people. They have had more opportunities for mutations to build up.
Let’s start with some vocabulary…
- Genetics vs. Genomics
Genetics and genomics both play roles in health and disease. Genetics refers to the study of genes and the way that certain traits or conditions are passed down from one generation to another. Genomics describes the study of all a person’s genes (the genome).
Genetics is a term that refers to the study of genes and their roles in inheritance – in other words, the way that certain traits or conditions are passed down from one generation to another. Genetics involves scientific studies of genes and their effects. Genes (units of heredity) carry the instructions for making proteins, which direct the activities of cells and functions of the body. Examples of genetic or inherited disorders include Hereditary Breast / Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Syndrome and Lynch Syndrome.
Genomics is a more recent term that describes the study of all a person’s genes (the genome), including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person’s environment. Genomics includes the scientific study of complex diseases such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and cancer. These diseases are typically caused more by a combination of genetic and environmental factors than by individual genes. Genomics is offering new possibilities for therapies and treatments for some complex diseases, as well as new diagnostic methods.
- Germline Mutations
Commonly associated with Genetics, Inherited Cancer Syndrome, Cancer Genetic Testing
A gene change in a body’s reproductive cell (egg or sperm) that becomes incorporated into the DNA of every cell in the body of the offspring. Germline mutations are passed on from parents to offspring and are also called germline variants.
- Somatic Mutations
Commonly associated with: Genomics, Biomarker Testing, Tissue Testing
An alteration in DNA that occurs after conception. Somatic mutations can occur in any of the cells of the body except the germ cells (sperm and egg) and therefore are not passed on to children. These alterations can (but do not always) cause cancer or other diseases.
Cancer genetics and genomics can be a confusing part of the process in determining a care plan. Oncology nurse navigators can help demystify these issues, and ensure that patients meet the proper cancer genetics professionals to get the right tests at the right time, while getting a full understanding on how testing can affect the care plan.
Frank dela Rama, RN, MS, AOCNS, AGN-BC
Senior Oncology/Cancer Genetics Nurse Navigator at Navvisa