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January 19, 1995

UPMC, Magee-Womens Hospital join in establishing cancer genetics program

People who are concerned that they or their children have a genetic risk of developing cancer may now assess and work toward reducing that risk, through a new program set up jointly by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Magee-Womens Hospital.

The Cancer Genetics Program, offering genetic counseling and education for cancer risk assessment and prevention, was announced last week.

"One in three Americans will develop cancer in their lifetime, but not everyone has the same risk," said John J. Mulvihill, medical director of the Cancer Genetics Program and professor of human genetics, pediatrics and molecular genetics and biochemistry at UPMC.

Until recently, most cancers were thought to be environmentally caused. "Now we know that, at the level of the cell, cancer is a genetic disease," Mulvihill said.

"Some genes have been identified that increase an individual's risk of developing certain cancers, such as breast, colon or ovarian cancer," he continued. "The Cancer Genetics Program can help patients understand how these factors influence their risk of cancer and can counsel them on appropriate steps to take to cope with, reduce or eliminate that risk." For those who have an increased risk, the program may recommend frequent screening tests to detect cancer at its earliest stages, lifestyle adjustments aimed at reducing the cancer risk, clinical studies testing the effectiveness of a prevention method, or surgery.

The program is designed for people who meet one or more of the following criteria: two or more immediate relatives (parent, child or sibling) with any cancer, two or more relatives with the same or related cancers, cancer occurring at an early age, more than one tumor in the same organ, primary cancer in each of two paired organs such as the kidneys or breasts, or rare cancers.

Medical geneticists and counselors trained in cancer genetics will help family members understand how certain cancers may occur repeatedly in families and what testing is available, said Mona Penles Stadler, program coordinator and a clinical instructor in the Department of Human Genetics. "Some individuals with a family history may overestimate their risk of developing cancer or believe that cancer is inevitable," Stadler said. "Knowing one's actual risk rather than a perceived one, based on family or genetic tests, can provide a sense of control." People interested in the program can call the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's information line, 1-800-237-4724, or Magee-Womens Hospital, 1-800-454-8156.

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