Genetic testing revealed early-stage cancer
Shari Conradson was 62 years old before she discovered that she has a genetic mutation that significantly raises the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. And thanks to Kaiser Permanente, she learned about it just in time.
“I was incredibly lucky; I had a new ob-gyn and I told her that my mother had died of ovarian cancer and also had breast cancer. She said I should get genetic testing and referred me to the Hereditary Cancer Program right on the spot,” said Conradson, a retired public school teacher who lives in Sebastopol.
After a blood test revealed her genetic risk, Conradson consulted with her care team and decided on preventive surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. The surgery revealed a .4 cm tumor on her right ovary, stage 1 ovarian cancer.
“There was no way I could have known the tumor was there since there are no symptoms. I wrote to my ob-gyn, ‘Thank you for referring me. You saved my life,’” Conradson said. She had CT and PET scans to ensure that the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes and then underwent three rounds of chemo, finishing the last one in May. She is now considering further surgery to remove her uterus as an additional preventive measure.
Conradson’s case is a perfect example of how Kaiser Permanente’s Hereditary Cancer Program works to help those at high risk manage their health proactively, said Bethan Powell, MD, gynecologic oncologist, who helped found the Hereditary Cancer Center at KPSF, one of six in the northern California region.
“Preventing ovarian cancer is a huge deal because there is no early detection. By the time we catch it, there’s only a 50% survival rate,” said Dr. Powell. “When patients are identified, we say it’s never too late. We do the surgery and if we find a small cancer, then that’s a treatable cancer.”
The Hereditary Cancer Program takes a multidisciplinary approach to care, working with each patient to create a plan for early detection and risk reduction, typically featuring some combination of intensive surveillance and often surgery.
Conradson has become a vocal advocate for genetic cancer screening, participating in the development of a new outreach campaign, What’s in Your Genes? that aims to spark conversations between physicians and patients about family cancer risk.
“Since there’s no test for ovarian cancer, it’s important to find out about your hereditary risks and take precautions,” said Conradson.
“We’re trying to publicize this so that questions about family cancer history become a routine part of patient visits, like questions about smoking and other health risks,” said Christine Garcia, MD, Gynecologic Oncology Department and director, KP NCAL Hereditary Cancer Program.
Cancer is a painful subject, and women who lost mothers and other relatives at a young age may feel so much fear and anxiety that they avoid thinking about it, acknowledged Dr. Garcia. “But the first step in protecting yourself is identifying your risk.”
“When I talk to patients, I tell them, `You have the opportunity to change your destiny,’” said Dr. Garcia. “Information is power, and you have the power to make decisions so that you’ll be healthy at 80 and won’t have to suffer the burden of cancer care.”
For more information about the Kaiser Permanente Hereditary Cancer Program, visit their website.