March 9, 2022

Lynch syndrome: An inheritance she never wanted

Karen Betzler was shocked to learn she has a gene mutation that increases her risk of colon cancer. Thanks to her care team, she’s managing her risk.

The oldest of 7 siblings, Karen Betzler shares a lot with her brothers and sisters — from their hazel eyes and freckles to their love of swimming and board games.

Three years ago, she learned she has something else in common with 5 of her siblings: an inherited condition called Lynch syndrome.

Caused by mutations, or changes, in certain genes, Lynch syndrome greatly increases the risk of certain cancers, including colorectal and uterine cancer.

“The genes involved in Lynch syndrome are called ‘mismatch repair genes,’” explained Laura Kellogg, a genetic counselor at Kaiser Permanente. “Their job is to fix damage that occurs to your genetic material, or DNA. If the Lynch genes aren’t working properly, then you can accumulate damage, and that damage can lead to the development of cancer.”

“It was kind of a shock to get that diagnosis,” said Betzler, who recently retired from her job as a cardiovascular sonographer at the Kaiser Permanente Sacramento Medical Center.

But the bad news came with a silver lining. Betzler was referred to Kellogg for genetic counseling and began receiving annual colonoscopies to check her colon and rectum for any signs of cancer. She also receives an endoscopy every 2 years to check for cancer in her stomach and esophagus.

Women with Lynch syndrome may also need regular screenings for reproductive cancers, but because Betzler had a hysterectomy, she does not.

Understanding hereditary cancer

One out of 3 Americans will get cancer at some point in their lives. Most cancers develop at random, but some people are born with a hereditary condition, passed down from a parent, that increases their risk.

People with Lynch syndrome have up to a 70% risk of developing colorectal cancer, for example, and women with Lynch syndrome have up to a 60% risk of uterine cancer. That’s compared to a risk of less than 5% for those 2 cancers in the general population.

Signs that a person may have Lynch syndrome include having:

  • Colorectal cancer before the age of 55 or uterine cancer before menopause
  • 2 or more colorectal or other Lynch-related cancers
  • Multiple relatives on one side of the family with colorectal or uterine cancers
  • A relative with Lynch syndrome

In Betzler’s case, a sibling who is not a Kaiser Permanente member was found to have Lynch syndrome after being diagnosed with colon cancer. “We tested Karen for the same gene mutation, and the results were positive,” said Kellogg.

A better care experience

Betzler appreciated the convenience of receiving care within Kaiser Permanente’s connected system.

“There was no delay in having any of the testing done. Whether it was the blood test or a colonoscopy, everything happens right here,” Betzler said. “My sibling had to go to all these different places.”

She added, “All 5 of us who belong to Kaiser Permanente had the option of using telehealth for our genetic counseling. I really liked that because I didn’t have to take extra time out of my day to go to an appointment.”

Using knowledge to manage risk

Kellogg credits Kaiser Permanente’s team approach with ensuring thorough evaluation of patients like Betzler for hereditary cancer syndromes. Review boards of cancer specialists meet regularly to discuss cases and often include genetic counselors like herself.

“Based on the patient’s family history or the pathology report, we’re able to make recommendations about which cases should be referred to Genetics,” Kellogg said.

If you think you may have an inherited predisposition for cancer, be sure to tell your doctor.

“Having that information allows you to be more proactive,” said Kellogg. “You can take concrete steps to manage your risk.”

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.