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Utah poll shows Americans still wary of genetic testing for cancer

Published February 5, 2014 12:54 pm

Poll • Respondents cite fears that results could hurt job prospects and insurability.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Most Americans would consider undergoing genetic testing to predict their risk for certain cancers, but confusion persists over the benefits and risks, according to a University of Utah poll.

The U.'s Huntsman Cancer Institute has invested heavily in genetics in recent months and sponsored a poll last fall to understand the public's perception of genetic testing. The online survey of 1,202 insured adults found nearly two-thirds would be at least somewhat likely to seek genetic testing to predict their likelihood of developing hereditary cancer. Over four-fifths would use genetic information to guide treatment.

But 34 percent would not seek testing — even if cost wasn't an issue — primarily due to fears that the results could make it harder to get a job or obtain health insurance.

Federal law prohibits such discrimination, suggesting a need to better educate the public about the strengths and weaknesses of genetic screens.

"I see patients every week who could have taken steps to reduce their risk if they'd known they'd had a predisposition for a certain type of cancer. The best treatment for cancer is prevention, of which genetic testing plays an integral role," said Saundra Buys, co-director of the Family Cancer Assessment Clinic and medical director of  High Risk Cancer Research at Huntsman, in a news release.

But not all patients are good candidates for testing, Buys added in an interview, noting family and personal health history are the most important factors in determining whether a person should pursue testing.

Only 5 percent of all cancers are thought to be inherited. But targeted therapies exist for about 50 mutations, and the list of target-able genes is growing.

Tests for these known mutations are only as useful as the counseling that accompanies them, Buys said.

"There are many genetic tests being ordered in physician offices around the country without the benefit of genetic counseling. The results of these tests are complex, and without appropriate counseling, can cause confusion and unneeded anxiety for patients," she said.

Among other findings from the poll:

• Of those who said they would seek testing to guide treatment, 72 percent said they would be willing to share their genetic information for research purposes.

• Only 8 percent reported ever having had a genetic test, but some claimed it was for prostate cancer when no such screen exists. "These people might have had a PSA or rectal exam, but they didn't have a genetic test," Buys said.

The U. posted partial poll results online.

Harris Interactive conducted the survey of insured men and women between the ages of 25 and 70. Results were weighted to reflect the U.S. population. Answers carry a 3 percent margin of error.

kstewart@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KStewart4Trib