Your Genes and Cancer Risk

“It runs in my family.” Many people have said or thought this at some point in time. In some cases, “it” might be a trait such as blue eyes or curly hair. In other cases, it might be high cholesterol or blood pressure or another health issue. Both genetic and nongenetic factors can contribute to a person’s risk of developing the same health issue that another family member already has. This is also true of cancer risk.

If a family member has had cancer, other family members may also be at a higher risk for developing the same or related cancer. This is especially true for certain types of colon, breast and ovarian cancers. As a result, it is important to know what cancers may run in your family. This information can help your doctor determine your cancer risk, and make sure he or she is screening you for similar cancers. With improved screening technology, many cancers can be detected at an early stage when they are most treatable.

If your family has multiple members who have been diagnosed with cancer, you may want to consult with a genetic counselor. He or she will be able to work with your entire family, collecting medical history information and tissue or blood samples, to learn more about your genetic cancer risk. If you are found to be at an increased risk of cancer, this information will guide your physician’s cancer screening and prevention recommendations. Some individuals who are found to be at a very high risk may decide to undergo preventive surgery or take medication to reduce their chance of a cancer diagnosis.

Knowing your family health history is an important tool for taking care of yourself and your loved ones. At your next family gathering, have a conversation about what conditions may run in your family, and bring that information to your next check-up with your doctor. It never hurts to be well informed about what health issues may run in your family.

Your Disease Risk, a free online personal assessment tool, also helps determine your risk of disease, including cancer, and provides personalized tips for reducing that risk and improving your health. You also can learn more by visiting Siteman Cancer Center’s genetic counseling webpage or the 8 Ways to Stay Healthy and Prevent Cancer.

Written by: Erin Linnenbringer, PhD, is an instructor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a Siteman Cancer Center researcher. She is also a board-certified genetic counselor. Her research explores the complex interactions among social, behavioral and genetic factors, their subsequent implications for population health and health disparities.

Photo: Preparing Genotyping Arrays [Daniel Sone] by the National Cancer Institute

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