THE latest genetic oncology technology that tests patients for the likelihood of inherited cancer is coming to the Bega Valley.
Genetic oncologist Dr Hilda High, who already operates the Sydney Cancer Genetics clinic in the city, specialises in inherited cancer and is excited to be setting up a cancer genetics clinic on the South Coast.
“Everyone, especially Dr AJ Collins and the Bega Valley GP Practice, have been so supportive,” Dr High said.
“It will save residents a lot of time and money and will make it easier to bring a relative or support person with them if they want.”
Even before Dr High became a doctor, she was interested in cancer.
“Mum had breast cancer when I was at high school and she was diagnosed with a new breast cancer just before I started medicine,” she said.
“When I was working as a medical oncologist, I decided I really wanted to help prevent cancer rather than just treat it. So, I specialised in cancer genetics.”
Dr High has plenty of experience in how expensive and time consuming it can be to travel to see a medical specialist.
And although her mum’s been cancer free for many years now, she still has to spend several days every year in Sydney having tests and seeing her specialist.
Meanwhile, her father lives in Merimbula and it’s even more complicated organising his visits to doctors, as he sees one specialist in Sydney and one in Canberra.
“He is in a wheelchair so I have to take a whole day off work each time to collect him from the airport, take him to the appointments and then back to the airport.”
So who should see a genetic oncologist?
Dr High said a good rule of thumb was if there are three related people with cancer in two generations and one person was under the age of 50.
Some cancers, such as ovarian cancer, have a higher chance of being caused by an inherited mutation.
In this case, the person with ovarian cancer or their relative should see a genetic oncologist, she said.
“All cancer is a genetic disease, in that it’s caused by mistakes in the genes of a cell,” Dr High said.
“Most cancer occurs at an older age as it takes time for these mistakes to build up. These kinds of genetic mistakes can’t be passed on to your children.
“In rare families there’s a mistake in an important gene, such as a cancer protection gene.
“This mistake, or genetic mutation as it’s called, is inherited from one of your parents and can be passed down to your children.”
She explained when a gene has a mutation in it, it doesn’t function properly.
And if a cancer protection gene isn’t working, certain cells may collect mistakes faster.
“That’s why in some families we see cancer occurring at a younger age or even more than one cancer occurring in the same person,” she said.
“Many people who see a genetic oncologist find out that their cancer risk is actually lower than they thought.
“For those families where there is a genetic mutation, there is plenty that can be done to reduce the risk, including starting the screening earlier or doing it more often.”
Sometimes risk-reducing surgery or risk-reducing medications may be recommended, she said.
For those people in the family who haven’t inherited the mutation, their risk is about the same as the general population.
And, importantly, as they don’t have the mutation, they can’t pass it on to their children, which can be a great relief.
During a typical appointment at the clinic, a genetic oncologist takes a detailed family history to determine if a genetic mutation associated with an increased risk of cancer is present.
“Sometimes genetic testing, via a simple blood test, will be recommended, but it’s never compulsory,” she said.
“Whether genetic testing is done or not, personalised strategies to reduce cancer risk are discussed.”
Dr High will be running the first clinic at Dr AJ Collins rooms in 14 Canning St, Bega on Friday and will be running telehealth health clinics regularly on the South Coast.
Spaces are still available and patients need a simple referral from their GP.
The bookings are being handled centrally from her Sydney Rooms at 9473 8833 and more information is available at www.SydneyCancerGenetics.com.au