The GRAIL Galleri Test: The New Early Detection Tool for Cancer
By Dr. Radley Griffin, M.D.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s a good thing they caught it early.”
With cancer, the biggest goal outside of prevention is early detection — catching the cancer before it has a chance to grow and spread.
We now have an incredible new tool that allows us to detect when any of a range of cancer types is present in the body. That tool is a multi-cancer early detection test by GRAIL called the Galleri test.
Why Early Detection Is Important
Early cancer detection is important because it greatly increases a person’s treatment options and, usually, their chance of survival. That’s why the CDC and other organizations recommend regularly screening for five specific cancers for people over certain ages. These cancers include:
- Breast cancer.
- Cervical cancer.
- Colorectal cancer.
- Prostate cancer.
- Lung cancer (for those who’ve smoked in their lifetime).
However, even if you regularly go in for these recommended screenings, GRAIL notes that 71% of cancer deaths are actually caused by other cancers, the ones without recommended regular screenings.
So why do these five cancers get special treatment? The answer is population health.
Population Health vs. Individual Health
Population health looks at a large group of people (a population) and seeks to improve overall health outcomes for that group based on statistics. If one cancer, like breast cancer, causes a large number of deaths in the population, then organizations recommend screening for that particular cancer. They decide when and how often the screening should take place based on how many lives it will save versus the cost and risk of screening.
For example, a certain screening may only be recommended for a population every three years. Why? Statistically speaking, it’s because performing that test every two years only saves ten lives, and performing it every three years saves 500 lives.
But what if you’re one of those ten?
In concierge medicine, we’re not looking at population health, but individual health. We want to provide care for members as individuals with their own unique family history, risk factors, and needs.
The Galleri test is an incredible tool that allows us to focus on each individual member and proactively screen for numerous cancers that the recommended routine diagnostic tests would never catch.
What Is the GRAIL Galleri Test?
Cancer screening has evolved similarly to how genetic testing has changed over the years. When genetic testing first became a reality, it was an expensive and inaccessible process. Now you can send off for genetic tests in the mail for yourself, or even for your dog.
The Galleri test is essentially a simple blood test. It doesn’t involve anything more complicated on the patient’s side than a standard blood draw.
On the analysis side, however, the Galleri test is groundbreaking. It detects cancer-specific DNA in the blood and predicts where that cancerous DNA originated in the body. We learn the results quickly, which means early detection and, when necessary, early intervention are possible right away.
Many cancers don’t cause symptoms until later stages, so people don’t know to get tested until the cancer becomes advanced. The Galleri test offers us a simple way to detect over 50 different types of cancer early and proactively, often before typical screening tools would.
If the test detects cancer markers in the blood, then we can perform further tests to confirm a diagnosis and begin treatment. In this way, the Galleri test works together with other screening tools to help us catch cancers early, so that they are more treatable and curable.
The Galleri test is still evolving and improving, and it’s important to note that it can’t detect all types of cancers, such as brain cancers — yet.
What Are the Current Primary Cancer Screening Tools?
One of the big positives about the Galleri test is its ease, safety, and simplicity versus other standard cancer screening tests.
Before the GRAIL Galleri Test was available, our primary cancer screening tools were:
- Breast cancer — Mammogram
- Cervical cancer — Pap smear
- Colorectal cancer — Colonoscopy
- Prostate cancer — PSA test and digital exam
- Lung cancer — CT scan
There are some concerns with these screening tools. For one thing, some of these tests are uncomfortable and, at times, mildly painful. Additionally, mammograms and CT scans expose you to radiation, which is why we have to limit their frequency.
These screening tests are still important, but they can’t be performed frequently, and they may not catch everything. In contrast, the Galleri test can be performed as often as necessary and can indicate when even the smallest amount of cancer is present, allowing physicians to make incredibly early interventions.
An Example of the GRAIL Galleri Test at Work
Let’s say a patient goes in for a routine CT scan of their lungs. The physician finds a 4 mm nodule on the patient’s lung. Statistically speaking, that 4 mm nodule is not large enough to pose a concern. The physician might suggest keeping an eye on the nodule to see if it grows, rather than doing an invasive procedure like a scope or biopsy.
But what if the physician could perform a simple blood test to investigate that nodule? And if the test came back positive for cancer, doctors could intentionally find that small, cancerous nodule and remove it before it could grow and spread.
This is a much better outcome for the patient than waiting another year for the next CT scan and discovering the statistically unimportant nodule had become a larger, cancerous mass.
Who Should Ask for the Galleri Test?
In our practice, there is no “one size fits all” approach to medicine — and that includes cancer screening.
We recommend GRAIL’s Galleri test to members who have a heightened risk for cancer, such as a family history of cancer or a personal history of smoking. We also recommend the Galleri test for members who are over the age of 50. This is because cancer risk increases greatly after age 50, and 80% of all cancers in the United States are diagnosed in people age 55 or older.
If you fit into one of these categories and you’re interested in the GRAIL Galleri test, ask your physician or patient care coordinator to add a Galleri test to your next blood draw.
It’s good to note that the Galleri test is not yet covered by insurance, and GRAIL currently charges $949 for the test.
We’re so excited to be able to offer this groundbreaking test to our members as an empowering tool in the fight against cancer.