Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Decoding the Genetic Makeup of Tumors

Genomic Health’s tests predict how cancers will behave
In Genomic Health’s labs, a machine called a Microtom cuts tumor samples for examination under a microscope
In Genomic Health’s labs, a machine called a Microtom cuts tumor samples for examination under a microscopePhotograph by Carlos Chavarría for Bloomberg Businessweek

In March 2009, Diane Carlini had a routine mammogram and got a preliminary diagnosis of breast cancer on the spot. She then underwent a gamut of tests including a painful biopsy and an MRI, followed by surgery to remove her tumor. Throughout the process, an unnerved Carlini tried to gauge the severity of her illness by reading the faces of doctors and parsing their less-than-precise takes on her condition. “With the mammogram, you could tell they weren’t completely sure what was going on,” she says. “And the same was true of the biopsy, where they could see some bad cells, but there was plenty of doubt.”

The only real moment of clarity for Carlini, who handles public relations for the tax software maker Intuit, came about a month into the ordeal. That’s when her three-page report from Genomic Health arrived, providing a detailed analysis of the genetic makeup of her tumors and how likely they were to respond to chemotherapy and to recur. Carlini found out there was a 29 percent chance her cancer would return without chemotherapy; the chances would fall to 15 percent with chemo, which she opted to have. “Somebody finally gave me some concrete information and a real recommendation,” says Carlini, whose cancer is now in remission. “I hung on to that—that those numbers were valid—through the whole treatment process.”