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High risk screening for cancer prevention, early detection

What would you do if you discovered you had an increased risk of cancer? 

“Thankfully, most people don’t need to worry about the answer, because most cancers develop sporadically,” said Dr. Iqbal Garcha, general surgeon at Northside Hospital. 

Sporadic cancer is due to non-hereditary factors such as environmental exposures, lifestyle choices or age, according to Alexandra Wallgren, MS, CGC, a licensed and certified genetic counselor at Northside. 

Wallgren said approximately “5-10% of all cancers are hereditary, which occur when changes, or mutations, are made in the DNA and are passed down from generations. 

“Despite this, those people who may have an increased likelihood of developing various cancers can be proactive and take preventative measures to ensure a long and healthy life.” 

For Atlanta resident Kelly Stine, who was adopted as an infant, her interest in personal genetics and risk peaked after doctors discovered multiple tumors along with several diagnosed diseases and medical conditions. 

In 1991, Kelly had a benign breast tumor removed. Years later, another benign tumor was discovered, and her gynecologist suggested Kelly undergo genetic testing to better understand her cancer risk. The process included a blood test and questionnaire that asked for details about Kelly’s family history, much of which she did not know because she didn’t have her birth family’s health background. A risk assessment questionnaire and genetic testing provide a more holistic view of cancer risk. 

“With more questions than answers regarding my hereditary cancer risk, I was referred to Northside’s High Risk Clinic to learn more about the genetic variants that were contributing to my health ailments,” Stine said. 

Launched in December 2022, Northside Hospital Cancer Institute’s High-Risk Program aims to provide specialized care for those who may be at a higher risk of developing cancer. Patients referred to the program may be seen at the High Risk Clinic, located on Northside’s Atlanta campus. 

“Our clinic has a multidisciplinary team including high-risk nurse practitioners, genetic counselors and dietitians,” said Garcha, who serves as medical director of the High Risk Program. “During an initial visit, patients connect with the high-risk team, examine their personal and family history for a comprehensive risk assessment, and receive extensive information about how to manage their risk of developing cancer through prevention and early detection.”

Stine said her experience could not have been better. She expressed her gratitude to the clinic staff, particularly Kiana Ohlson, NP, the clinical coordinator.

“Not only did I receive exceptional care,” said Stine, “I received a personalized, evidence-based care plan that included enhanced cancer screenings, genetic counseling, nutrition appointments and regular follow-up appointments to help me get ahead of my health risks, reduce my anxiety and improve my quality of life.”

The team also helps patients understand how genetic testing might impact family members since one genetic test has the potential to provide risk information for many family members at once. Genetic testing is available to those who meet certain criteria based on their personal and family cancer history and is most beneficial when it begins with the individual in a family who has or has had cancer. However, in some cases, testing can also be done on someone without cancer because of the history in their close relatives.

Both Ohlson and Garcha said they’re honored and excited to be able to offer these services to the Atlanta community.

“The goal of this program is to educate, extend survival, improve the quality of life and reduce anxiety for those with a high risk for cancer by virtue of proper surveillance, early detection and prompt treatment,” said Ohlson.

“Patients that are at high risk for developing breast cancer have been underserved by the medical community for some time,” added Garcha. “This dedicated program is essential to helping them properly evaluate and reduce their risk early on.”

While there are many ways to identify hereditary cancer risks, Wallgren said proactivity and prevention top the list. “Limiting various environmental factors, staying healthy, making appropriate lifestyle changes, knowing your family history, and getting screened or tested are all ways to ensure a happy, wholesome life,” she said.

Now that Stine has a better understanding of her risk, she recommends that if you don't know your family history, or if you’re adopted, it’s all the more reason to get tested.

“The knowledge I have of my risk and the extra screenings I receive gives me peace of mind,” she said. “I wish that for everyone. So, try to get the lines of communication open with your family – and even if you don't think you're at risk – still get tested.” 


If you’re concerned about your cancer risk or have questions about the High Risk Program at Northside, call 404-851-6284 or email [email protected].

 

Learn more about the High Risk Program and cancer care at Northside. 

  

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Dr. Iqbal Garcha picture

Dr. Iqbal Garcha

Specialties: General Surgery, Breast Surgery, Surgery

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Dr. Iqbal Garcha is a board-certified, award-winning surgeon with decades of experience in both laparoscopic and robotic surgical procedures. 

He sees patients at Surgical Specialists of Atlanta.

Alexandra Wallgren, MS, CGC picture

Alexandra Wallgren, MS, CGC

Specialties: Cancer Care

Alexandra Wallgren is a licensed and certified genetic counselor with Northside Hospital Cancer Institute Cancer Genetics Program.

Kiana Ohlson, NP picture

Kiana Ohlson, NP

Specialties: Cancer Care

Kiana Ohlson is the clinical coordinator of the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute High Risk Cancer Clinic.

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