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Genetics and Cancer: Why You Should Know Your Risk


WRITTEN BY: CancerCenter
Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

When you go to your doctor for an annual checkup, you’re usually required to fill out a medical history form. Not only do you need to complete information about yourself, but your family, as well – including if your family has a history of cancer.

This information isn’t requested to know more about your family, but rather to get a better idea of what you may be facing in the future. This information can help your doctor paint a clearer picture of health risks due to your family’s health history.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are linked to genetics that are inherited from your parents. However, just because you have a family member who had/has cancer does NOT mean you will definitely develop it, as well. It does mean that if your parent(s) had a cancer, the chance of you getting that same type of cancer is increased somewhat compared to another person in the population.

For this reason, it’s important to know and disclose your family medical history to your doctor or consider screening for specific conditions. This can better help you and your doctor navigate your cancer risk.

Why Is It Important to Know My Family’s History?

Although most cancer is not due to an inherited single gene cause, some people do have a susceptibility to cancer that is caused by a change in a cancer-associated gene that is inherited from a parent. If you have a family member with cancer, there are many reasons why it is beneficial to know your cancer risk, including to:

  • Understand the risk of cancer for you or your children.
  • Discover if inheritance played a role in the development of your cancer or a family member’s cancer.
  • Obtain information about cancer screening tests, such as mammography or colonoscopy, and about how often the tests should be done.
  • Make decisions about the use of medicines to prevent cancer or preventive surgery.
  • Investigate the need for genetic (DNA) testing for changes (mutations) in cancer-predisposing genes.

Knowing about your family history can help save your life. Some cancers that can be due to inherited gene mutations include breast, ovary, and colon cancers.

What Can I Expect at a Cancer Risk Consultation?

A cancer risk consultation can provide information about your cancer risk, cancer screenings and genetic testing that you may want to consider based on your personal or family cancer history. Patients who receive a consultation will learn about inherited and environmental factors that may cause cancer in a family or an individual.

At a cancer risk consultation, patients meet with a genetic counselor to completely review the family and medical histories with regard to cancer. You will discuss:

  • An estimation of your risks for specific cancers based upon your age, family history, and other risk factors.
  • An assessment of your cancer family tree.
  • The possible role of genetics in your family’s cancer.
  • Emotional issues surrounding cancer and risk.
  • The availability of genetic testing for certain cancer susceptibilities and the risks, benefits, and limitations of genetic testing.
  • Review cancer screening tests and current recommendations for how often you should be screened.

If you are concerned about your family’s cancer history, and how it may impact you and your family’s future health, you might want to consider making an appointment with a cancer genetics service. If genetic testing is offered you should always consult with your doctor first about the benefits and risks.

UPMC CancerCenter offers the Cancer Genetics Program (CGP), a joint program of UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. The CGP provides education, research, and cancer risk assessment for individuals and their families who are concerned about their risk for cancer and how genetic inheritance may play a role.

Learn more about genetic counseling, what to expect, and the services offered.

UPMC CancerCenter

CancerCenter

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