The high cost of genetic testing
Angelina Jolie and her preventive mastectomies are still making news, as is the business of genetic testing.
On May 14, the day Ms. Jolie revealed her story, Myriad Genetics, the company that holds the patents on both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene sequences, saw its share price rise by 4% to the highest point in its history.
How happy the company’s board must have been when Ms. Jolie wrote in her New York Times op-ed piece that “every woman” should have access to such information. She did acknowledge, however, that the $3,000+ price tag could be an obstacle.
Related reading: “Cashing In On Breast Cancer Awareness”
Most health insurance does cover the testing and the preventive surgery. But remember that the more claims insurance companies have to pay, the more they will charge the consumer in the form of higher premiums, deductibles and co-pays.
And as long as Myriad Genetics has the patents on those particular bits of DNA, there will be no competition to lower the price. (The U.S. Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether human DNA can be patented. A decision is expected later this month and will have a profound impact on both Myriad and the future of genetic testing.)
Your family health history – an inexpensive alternative
Until genetic testing is as accessible and cheap as testing for strep throat, the next best thing is knowing your family health history.
As a nurse, I have taken hundreds of patient histories and I am always surprised by how little most people know about the health of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. “Well, he died of something, but I can’t remember what it was.” or “I think maybe she had cancer – or maybe it was appendicitis.”
It’s very helpful if you can provide your health care provider with a comprehensive family health history. Even without genetic testing, Ms. Jolie knew her risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer was increased because both her mother and her maternal aunt had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Such knowledge helps your doctor personalize your health care.
Many common conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and osteoporosis (among others) have a genetic link. By looking at your family tree you can see patterns in the types of diseases, the ages of onset of disease, and the ages/causes of death among your family members.
The US Surgeon General’s office has a great online tool, My Family Health Portrait, to help you put together a family health history tree.
Share the information with other family members (who might have information of their own to share), and then pass your family health history on to your children.
Related reading: “Gene flaws linked to black women’s greater breast cancer risk”
We make the most effective decisions about our health care when we have as much information as possible. Genetic testing is not available for every disease, and it’s not affordable for many.
Your family health history is free.