Potentially life-saving genetic cancer test becomes more affordable

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Michelle Wittenburg recalls a memory or a conversation with her best friend Andrea Sloan and her face immediately lights up.

“She’s pretty amazing to so many people,” Wittenburg said with a big smile.

Sloan lost her battle to ovarian cancer on January 1, 2014. She would have been 46 years old later that month. 

Michelle Wittenburg’s mission is to continue Andrea Sloan’s legacy as she raises awareness and money for ovarian cancer. (Courtesy Michelle Wittenburg) 

Wittenburg explained that Sloan didn’t have a history of cancer in her family. By the time she found out, she was already diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. 

Wittenburg said after her death she wanted to make sure she didn’t have any hereditary cancer risks.

“I did get myself tested about 5 years ago and I paid for it out of pocket, because insurance did not cover it, and I paid $1,000 to have myself genetically tested,” Wittenburg explained. “After watching what my best friend went through, I wanted to know if I had this genetic marker.”

Her results were negative. Wittenburg said that gave her peace. 

Benefits of genetic cancer testing  

Dr. Chris Seeker with Austin Area Ob-Gyn & Fertility understands that peace of mind.

His mother had breast cancer when he was a teen. He worried about his daughters. After talking to his family, he decided to get a genetic cancer test to determine his risks. It was negative. 

“That really took away a lot of worry for us,” Dr. Seeker explained. “So, that one that has a family history that can be reassured that’s the greatest thing.”

Dr. Seeker’s office uses the Color’s Hereditary Cancer Test which analyzes 30 genes that break down the risk of some of the common types of cancers including breast, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate. 

“If we get a positive – that knowledge is very powerful, because we know how to screen people more carefully particularly for breast cancer or ovarian cancer, but also melanoma and pancreatic cancer and colorectal cancer.” Dr. Seeker explained. “We know how to tailor our screening to identify those and find them early so that we can get cures.” 

Affordability of testing

Dr. Seeker wants this test to be accessible to as many people as possible. 

During the month of October, his office is offering the genetic cancer test for $119 out of pocket. Normally, it costs $249. 

He said the saliva test takes seconds and the results are usually in by three weeks. His office said the discounted price has quadrupled testing in the last few weeks. 

“For those who have a positive family history we’re going to have a 10 to 15% chance that we are a carrier,” Dr. Seeker said “For those who don’t have a family history the risk is actually going to be quite lower.”

He said that after a test a detailed analysis is provided and genetic counselors are available to talk about next steps. 

After checking with other doctors, KXAN investigator Arezow Doost found that pricing depends on the company used by the doctor, and can range from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars out of pocket. 

“We were able to get this special price I think because there’s 20 of us who do this test at the same place,” Dr. Seeker said. 

Health insurance may cover the cost if there’s a personal or family history of cancer.

“Genetic testing for hereditary cancer is complicated as there are multiple different genetic tests targeting different genes,” explained Gayle Patel, Director of Texas Oncology’s Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing (GREAT) Program. “It is important that the right test be matched with the right person and that each patient has a good understanding of the test they are consenting to and the implications of those results.”

Patel said that their program offers individuals with a personalized evaluation that includes a detailed review of family history to determine the most appropriate genetic test. She also explained that after a test is complete, the team reviews the results to determine the best long-term surveillance plan based on not only test results but also based on personal and family history. 

The life that could have been saved

Wittenburg said had Sloan gotten this type of testing it could have saved her life. She said while she was battling cancer, she was raising awareness and looking for ways to help others. 

Andrea Sloan was determined to beat cancer and help others navigate resources. Today, her best friend is making sure that’s being done. (Courtesy Michelle Wittenburg) 

Sloan waited several months for an experimental drug which doctors believed could extend her life, but the drug came too late. 

The Austin attorney advocating for Compassionate Use Reform. She pushed for a law that would make it easier for terminally ill patients, like her, to get access to experimental drugs. 

The Andrea Sloan Right to Try Act became law in June of 2015. It was a proud moment for Wittenburg and so many others who had joined the cause. 

By then, Wittenburg had helped start the KK125 Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, which focuses on awareness and raises money for ovarian cancer research.

She’s the President of the Foundation’s Board as she continues her best friend’s legacy. 

“She always felt desperate about helping other people that were faced with the same predicament,” Wittenburg said. “My job in her shoes is… to fulfill those wants, needs, desires of hers – to help all the women similarly situated.”

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