Genetic Testing in Cancer Care
Genes are what make you, you. It is the information passed down from parents to children, to determine things like eye colour, skin tone and height. Under the surface, it also determines all biochemical processes like metabolism, hormone production, how your body uses nutrients, and the predisposition for health conditions.
How much do we know about genes and genetic mutations in relation to cancer?
When it comes to cancer, you may know that certain genes or genetic mutations are linked with cancer risk. A good example is BRCA1 and BRCA2 for breast and ovarian cancer, made somewhat famous by Angelina Jolie's decision to have a preventative double mastectomy in 2013.
But there are many other, less well known genetic mutations that are being researched for their link to cancer initiation, growth and spread. For instance, certain gene mutations enable cells to grow out of control (a key feature of cancer cells), while other mutations may inhibit the immune system from detecting a dodgy cell and killing it. Other genes influence a cell's inherent repair mechanisms, while others again influence how tightly a cluster of cells stick together, versus how easily particles break off and travel to other locations (aka metastasis).
As you can see, there are many genes involved in the processes of cancer initiation and progression. They may be key in determining why one person gets cancer, and another doesn't, even if both parties are seemingly 'healthy'. It may also determine how aggressive a cancer is and how fast it spreads.
Identifying these mutations and finding ways to influence them is a key aspect of cancer genetic research into targeted therapies.
Aren't genes permanent, meaning I can't change my genetic makeup?
(Ie, are my parents to blame for dealing me a crappy set of cards and there's nothing I can do about it?)
Nope! Not exactly.
Yes, your genetic makeup (DNA) is permanent. But that does not determine exactly how it's going to go. The DNA only gives a blueprint, which then still needs to be read, interpreted and actioned. And we now know that this is something that can in fact be influenced, fox example by environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle and toxin exposure.
In other words, gene expression can be upregulated, downregulated, switched on and switched off, by your overall health status, the environment you are in, what you eat, what you do, and how you manage your stress.
Let's take it back a step.
Genetics is the study of genes, genetic variations and heredity in organisms. Genes and DNA are permanent. You get half each from your biological parents, and in turn will pass some of those on to your offspring.Epigenetics on the other hand studies gene expression, ie how a gene is read and what is done with that information. For the science lovers out there: it looks at changes in phenotype, without changes in the genotype.
How is this relevant for someone with cancer?
Like the research into drugs and targeted therapies to influence cancer growth processes, there is also emerging research into lifestyle choices and plant and nutritional compounds that can do the same.
As mentioned above, there are a vast range of genes that influence how cancer initially forms, how it survives, how it grows, and how it metastasises. Clinical research shows that various nutritional compounds can indeed affect expression of the genes that drive these processes, for example by downregulating or inhibiting them, or strengthening the processes of protective genes.
Nutrigenomics specifically studies how food and nutrients influence gene expression, and how that relates to the development of disease. It is a whole field of research that is creating incredible opportunities for how we prevent, treat and manage cancer.
In short: while drugs are strong, aren't the only "weapon" against cancer. Through modifying our diet and lifestyle habits, we can further influence cancer initiation, growth and metastasis.
What does this mean for me?
Knowledge is power.
We all have "faults" in our genes, and things that work better than others. When we know about these faults, it means we can target them specifically and use evidence-based approaches to work toward correcting them where possible.
In terms of your cancer, it gives you the opportunity to target it and how your body responds to it in as many ways as possible. Using a safe, evidence-based Integrative Oncology approach with the guidance of an experienced practitioner will give you the best of both words in influencing your gene expression, and improve your outcomes.
Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group partners with some of the world's best testing laboratories including the Research Genetics Cancer Centre (RGCC) Group, a company that is pioneering the work around medical and cancer genetics. RGCC is able to do in depth genetic testing on gene mutations, allowing us to tailor a treatment approach using evidence-based complementary medicines to influence those biochemical pathways.
What kind of testing is available in Australia?
The downside of genetic testing in cancer care?
These tests are incredibly expensive (often more than $3000) due to the complexity of sample collection, lab equipment, data collection and ongoing research. Unfortunately testing is not realistic for all patients with cancer. If this is the case for you, we are still able to assist you and create a personalised Integrative Oncology Plan support your body naturally in the prevention, treatment and prevention of recurrence of cancer.
For more information on genetic testing or Integrative Oncology Plans at Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group, please give us a call.