Is 23andMe Worth the Hype? + How to Interpret Results

Being that I’ve had cancer, doing the 23andMe genetic testing and analysis was especially important to me, especially after my oncologist recommended that I think about genetic counseling. I decided against seeing an official genetic counselor, but I participated in an iPad study that the University of Minnesota has been conducting.

The study is meant to measure how gynecological cancer patients respond to using a new iPad app to learn about ovarian cancer, including the role that genes play in ovarian cancer. I found the study to be super interesting, and I received two $15 Target gift cards for participating – so why not?

Cancer Risk Factors

When I participated in the study, I learned more about the role that genes play in ovarian cancer and how only about 20-25 percent of women with ovarian cancer have a hereditary tendency. Women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene are responsible for about 10-15 percent of all ovarian cancers. Women with Lynch Syndrome have a 12 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer and a 40-60 percent chance of developing uterine cancer. Lynch Syndrome may also increase a woman’s risk of developing colon cancer.

Even though I decided against genetic counseling with the University of Minnesota, I decided to use 23andMe to get a full genetic report. I’m a strong believer in environment/diet/lifestyle being the biggest risk factors for cancer, but obviously you can’t change your genes, so I’d like to at least know what my genes say about me. Especially since my mom and all of my grandparents have had cancer at some point during their lifetime. 

23andMe Review + How to Interpret Results

My Review of 23andMe

First off, 23andMe isn’t cheap. I paid $199 to get the test and you have to wait 6-8 weeks for the results, which was absolute torture waiting to see what my genes would reveal. When I first ordered the test, I received it in just a few days, so that process was quick. 

The testing process is easy; they send you a tube to spit in and you send it back to them in their pre-paid package. You register your saliva collection tube barcode on the 23andMe website so they know how to identify you, and then you’ll be notified via email when the results are ready. 

When I finally received my test results, I logged onto my account and instantly viewed my genetic analysis. I began reading the results and browsed through the information about my physical traits and the likelihood that I had blue eyes and whether or not I prefer sweet snacks to salty. Sure, it was interesting seeing if their predictions were correct based off of my DNA, but is this information really helpful? I began asking myself if I really spent $200 on this and felt total remorse. In the end, I ended up doing a ton of online research and learned that the raw data is where you’re going to find the most out of your results. Once I dove into the raw data, I started to realize what all the fuss was about!

In addition to the raw data, the Carrier Status reports are also really interesting. They tell you about any health risks that you could pass onto your children. An online tutorial is also available to help you read through your results, if needed. 

The Raw Data

The raw data is an awesome feature of 23andMe. You can find the raw data under the Tools section of the website, separate from your other results (which are found under the Reports section). Click Browse My Data and enter any specific genes and markers of interest. The only problem? How do you know which genes and markers (or SNPs) to search for? You can download all of your raw, uninterpreted data, but that still won’t get you anywhere. 

That’s when I turned to websites like Genetic Genie to upload my raw data into their system. It’s a free service and gives you tons of great information for interpreting your 23andMe data. After all, you pay $200 for the data so you sure as heck want to figure out what it all means, right? To use Genetic Genie, you need to download your raw data from 23andMe and then upload your data to their website, OR you can connect with Genetic Genie through your 23andMe account. 

I suggest you upload your raw data on both the Methylation Analysis and Detox Profile sections of Genetic Genie to get the most out of your results. Basically, you’ll find out which supplements you may want to take to help your body function at its highest potential. Genetic Genie also tells you whether or not you have any genetic mutations, such as the MTHFR, CBS, MTR/MTRR, MAO-A, COMT, VDR, BHMT, and AHCY mutations. Once you have your results, I highly recommend that you dive deeper into what these genetic mutations mean. Just don’t freak out if you find out that you have the human warrior gene (also known as MAOA).  

The whole thing is super interesting, and if you’re like me, you’ll spend hours and hours Googling each and every genetic mutation you find on your report! The report will show you whether or not you’re homozygous (+/+) or heterozygous (+/-) for a certain gene, or if you don’t carry a specific genetic mutation. 

What About Cancer Genes?

Unfortunately, figuring out any genes that may increase your cancer risk is a bit trickier, and even Genetic Genie couldn’t help me with that. 23andMe UK includes a list of genes (such as BRCA1) that you can search for in the raw data on 23andMe to find out if you have any risk factors for certain medical conditions, such as cancer. All you need to do is enter the gene in your raw data to search for it on 23andMe.

If your results don’t display the variant/genetic marker/SNP that is listed on the 23andMe UK website (such as 5382insC, 185delAG, and 6174delT for BRCA1), then you probably don’t have the gene. 

I also came across the website SNPedia which allows you to search for a certain medical concern (such as ovarian cancer) and a list of the relevant SNPs will appear. You can search for those SNPs by entering them into your raw data on 23andMe. For example, these SNPs may be related to ovarian cancer, so you’d start by entering “HOXD3” into the raw data on 23andMe and then look for the gene rs2072590 in the results. If it’s not in your raw data, then you probably don’t have that particular gene.

If you do see the gene in your results, keep in mind that your genotype also comes into play, so you’ll need to do a little more research on that particular gene to see if your genotype matches. 

Advantages of 23andMe Genetic Testing

Like I said, the raw data is an awesome advantage of the 23andme report. I think that it’s totally worth the money IF you’re willing to put in the extra effort to interpret your results. I think it’s especially important if you plan to have kids one day or if you’re on the fence about it.

One of the really cool parts about 23andMe is that you never stop receiving results for the new tests they perform. For example, I just received two carrier status reports this past week for Canavan Disease and Mucolipidosis Type IV. Even though I don’t plan to have kids in the future (biological, anyway), this information is still very important to me and I think that people who plan on being parents can really benefit from this information since many of these diseases affect child development and behavior. 

I know that many people are scared to know what their genes could reveal, but I personally wanted to know if my cancer could be hereditary or not. If you’re nervous about what your genes could reveal about you and your family’s health, just remember that genes aren’t everything. While we cannot change our genes, we can change the ways in which we live.

Diet, lifestyle, and environment are other important factors that influence our health, and those are things we can control! 

Alex Beane

Alex is a freelance writer who holds a BA in Professional and Creative Writing. She has a strong interest in veganism, holistic health, and emotional and physical wellbeing. When she isn’t reading and writing about health and wellness, Alex is trying new plant based recipes in the kitchen or can be found volunteering with a Minneapolis-based animal rights organization or local rabbit rescue. Find Alex on LinkedIn or view her writing portfolio.