The war on cancer has always relied on a two-front strategy. In the laboratory, scientists look for cures, new therapies or surgical techniques that will slow or reverse malignancy’s cellular march. On the front line, medical professionals focus on screening at-risk patients, with the goal of identifying risk early and beginning treatment while it still has a chance of success.

Screening has saved millions of lives and promises to save even more as technological solutions become more precise, affordable and accessible. 

The Bhalwani Family Charitable Foundation is playing a key role by helping to support the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and its many initiatives that help improve access to genetic cancer screening for patients in Toronto and across Canada. As part of the Centre, the Bhalwani Familial Cancer Clinic is making it possible for greater numbers of people with a personal or family history of cancer to benefit from life-saving genetic testing, counselling and risk assessment services.

Top medical professionals at the Bhalwani Familial Cancer Clinic, the largest genetics clinic of its kind in Canada, evaluate patients based on family history and cancer gene panel tests, and approve high-risk patients for the most advanced cancer screening.

Genetic testing provides advance warning of current health risks or risks that may emerge at a later date as a result of an inherited risk gene. Certain mutations in genes can indicate potential malignancy. Evaluating family history is an important component of genetic testing. Some types of cancers are seen in many generations of the same family, passed down to posterity with the regularity of blue eyes or tall stature.

When genetic testing reveals a problematic mutation, patients do not need to hit the panic button. Although preventing the development of a particular cancer may involve drug therapies or even surgery, reducing risk can also be as simple as making basic changes in lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol and exercising regularly.

Genetic testing benefits not only the patient, but also members of his or her family. When a genetic cancer risk is discovered, it is important to alert blood relatives who may have inherited the same gene. Sharing this crucial information could very well save their lives.

The American Cancer Society recommends genetic screening for certain high-risk groups, including:

  • Patients with a mother, father, sisters, brothers or children who had cancer
  • Many relatives on one side of the family who had the same type of cancer
  • A cluster of cancers in the family that are linked to a single gene mutation. Examples of this include breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, which are sometimes linked to BRCA gene mutations.
  • Patients with a family member who had more than one type of cancer
  • Patients with family members who had cancer at a younger age than normal for that particular cancer
  • Patients with close relatives with cancers that are linked to rare hereditary cancer syndromes
  • A rare cancer in a patient or a family member, such as breast cancer in a man or retinoblastoma
  • A particular race or ethnicity, such as Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, which can involve an elevated risk of BRCA gene mutations
  • Patients with an exam finding or lab test that fits the profile of an inherited cancer, such as discovery of many polyps in the colon 
  • Patients with family members whose higher risk has already been documented through genetic testing