Your DNA Can Help You Fight Cancer
When you first hear that your diagnosis is cancer, you may think that there’s only one road to recovery. The traditional treatment for cancer often involves chemotherapy, a cytotoxic—or cell-killing—process that destroys the cells in your body indiscriminately. Typical side effects include hair loss, dark spots on your skin, and overwhelming nausea. Yes, chemotherapy can reduce the growth of tumors, but it also affects many other healthy cells.
Fight Cancer with DNA Secrets
But there are other ways to attack your cancer. Targeted therapies, for example, involve medicines that are specifically crafted to target cancer cells. Some of these therapies involve cutting off blood supply to tumors, restricting the production or activity of proteins that promote tumor growth, or boosting antibodies that reduce cancerous inflammation. Instead of killing healthy and cancerous cells arbitrarily, targeted therapies allow you to fight cancer in a way that is intended to minimize the effects on your healthy cells. There are still side effects, but they are much diminished.
When you get your tumor genome sequenced, you can find the mutations that are causing your cancer. And when you know what genetic mutation to target, your therapy becomes much more specific and personalized. Take a second to think about these statistics of the percent of tumors that can be treated with targeted therapies, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
· Melanoma: 73 percent
· Thyroid: 56 percent
· Colorectal: 51 percent
· Endometrial: 43 percent
· Lung and pancreatic: 41 percent
· Breast: 32 percent
· Gastrointestinal: 25 percent
· Ovarian: 21 percent
· Head and neck: 21 percent
The purpose of targeted therapies is not to change your DNA. Although it would be ideal if we could eliminate these destructive genes from our cells, science has not yet reached the point where we can actually alter our genome. Instead, targeted therapies aim at the effects of malfunctioning genes—often blocking the activity of the proteins that these genes are coded to produce or affecting other molecules that interact with those proteins in your cells.
Each gene holds the code to an important cellular function, such as building proteins or regulating cell growth. Some targeted therapies can help to block the production of certain proteins so that cancerous genes become dormant. Other therapies block the communications between cells so that they can’t continue to grow uncontrollably.
There are thousands of genetic mutations that have been identified as cancer-causing. Consider just a few examples: NRAS is a gene that regulates cell growth and is one of the most common melanoma mutations. It’s also connected to colorectal, liver, lung, and thyroid cancers. Numerous drugs—such as MEK and AKT inhibitors—are currently under trial to target and reduce the effects of this gene. Additionally, CSF1 is a gene that codes for protein receptors on the cell surface, and mutations in this gene are connected to breast and pancreatic cancer. Drugs that give patients antibodies to interfere with these receptors are currently in trial. JAK1 is a gene that controls the pathways in and out of the cell and is connected to types of leukemia. JAK1 inhibitors have already been approved by the FDA, and others are currently under trial.
No cancer is the same. Do you know what genetic mutation is causing yours?
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between genetic testing and genomic sequencing. If you’re fighting breast cancer, for instance, your doctor may suggest that you get genetically tested for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. BRCA1 and BRCA2 account for 40 percent of inherited breast cancers and 80 percent of inherited breast and ovarian cancers. This means that you could be struggling with breast cancer because your mom or grandmother had this genetic mutation and passed it down to you. Knowing about these mutations could influence your care strategies, and it could also be an alert to your family members to get tested to see if they are predisposed to the same types of cancers. If so, they could decide to get cancer screening tests at a younger age or more frequently.
However, inherited genetic mutations are responsible for only five to ten percent of all cancers. Maybe it’s the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, but you could also have developed a mutation as a result of your environment. About 90 percent of cancers are a result of developed mutations. When you get genetically tested, it means that the lab will be looking only at one specific spot on your genome to see if you have a particular mutation.
And they may not find anything. You could spend a fair bit of money to get genetically tested, and the lab may check your genes—and still come up empty-handed. When you’re fighting cancer, you want answers fast. You don’t want to keep checking random bits of DNA to find the right mutation. There are well-known stories of people getting tested for the wrong gene and missing an important mutation in a gene they didn’t first test. The cancer genetics website describes that many genes could be contributing to your cancer. Checking each of those genes individually takes time. With cancer, there isn’t time for guesswork after diagnosis.
Broad genomic analysis checks a wide range of important genes at the same time, to find those mutations hiding among your tumor’s genes. Once you pinpoint the right gene to fight, you can work with your doctors to create a personalized cancer therapy plan that could include participating in a clinical trial.
Your knowledge of your genes could amount to targeted options in your cancer treatment. That’s why we encourage people to talk about genomic profiling with their doctors about genomic testing strategies.
Once you’ve had that discussion with your doctor, view our list of diagnostic test providers to find a lab and schedule your test as soon as possible.