Cancer has been a source of concern and intrigue for centuries, with its complex nature raising numerous questions among medical professionals and the general public. Many frequently asked questions revolve around risk factors, early detection and root causes. The answer to one particular question has cascading consequences for these other inquiries — is cancer truly hereditary, and if so, to what extent?
The connection between cancer and genetics is a multifaceted subject within the realm of cancer research and prevention. While not all cancers are genetically linked, certain types can exhibit a distinct hereditary component. We know genes play a role in regulating cell division, DNA repair mechanisms and genome stability – all of which are relevant to the development of cancer. Mutations in key genes, including those passed down to children, can disrupt these functions, elevating the risk of cancer development.
What Is Hereditary Cancer?
Not all cancers are qualified as hereditary, somewhere between five and 10 percent are distinctive for their ability to be passed on via inherited mutations. These mutations can significantly increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including some types of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. Unlike sporadic cases of cancer that occur due to a combination of environmental factors and random genetic changes, hereditary cancer has a clear genetic basis.
In hereditary cancer cases, specific genes known as “cancer susceptibility genes” or “oncogenes” carry mutations that predispose individuals to an increased risk of developing cancer. Mutations in these genes can disrupt the normal regulation of cell growth, division and repair, leading to uncontrolled cell growth — a key characteristic of cancer.
Two well-known examples of genes associated with hereditary cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2 (sometimes referred to as tumor suppressor genes). Mutations in these genes are linked to an elevated risk of breast, ovarian and other cancers. Individuals with a strong family history of these cancers should seriously consider undergoing genetic testing to determine if they carry such mutations.
Nearly everyone who learns about a parent, sibling or another close blood relative being diagnosed with cancer experiences some level of anxiety about their own risks. Our knowledge of hereditary cancer is not exactly new, and this response is natural. However, it’s important to be realistic and listen to your doctor’s recommendations. Simply having a family member with a hereditary cancer does not guarantee that an individual will develop cancer.
While genetic mutations may increase the risk, other factors such as lifestyle, environment and chance also play critical roles in determining whether cancer develops or not.
Crucial Factors to Consider When Evaluating Hereditary Cancer Risk
Family history – A substantial family history of a specific cancer type may suggest the presence of hereditary factors and a potential greater likelihood of cancer. The closest attention should be paid to first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Age of onset – Cancers manifesting at an unusually young age may indicate a hereditary predisposition. Genetic mutations can potentially expedite the onset of cancer.
Multiple primary cancers – The diagnosis of multiple primary cancers can increase the likelihood of an inherited predisposition to cancer.
Inheritance pattern – The path of inheritance can be an important factor in accurately determining your risk. Be as detailed as possible when discussing your family history with your doctors so they can make informed recommendations.
Genetic testing – If you have family members who have been diagnosed with cancer, you should consider asking your doctor about genetic testing and whether it’s right for you. If you do undergo genetic testing, it is essential to consult with specialists who can properly interpret the results.
Is Genetic Testing Painful or Expensive?
The cost of genetic testing varies (from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand) and is sometimes covered by insurance (although it depends on your specific circumstances/medical needs and your coverage).
Labs do not all uniformly charge the same rate for genetic testing, so if money is a concern be sure to shop around your options.
The genetic test for cancer risk is not particularly painful, as it usually involves either drawing blood or taking a saliva swab inside your cheek. It is not like a colonoscopy where the test is intrusive and poses its own unique sets of risk.
If you are seriously concerned about your risk for hereditary cancer, you should speak with your doctor about testing.
Addressing Concerns and Taking Control
Getting concerning results on your test is not a guarantee you will be diagnosed with cancer, especially if you take meaningful steps to manage the situation. Knowing your family medical history and predispositions is a good first step, but you may also want to schedule genetic counseling. They can help you understand specific risk factors relevant to you and help you map potential prevention steps.
Also learn about lifestyle modifications, like diet changes, quitting drinking or smoking or reducing your sun exposure. that may help reduce your risk of the types of cancer you are predisposed to suffering.
Facing a Cancer Diagnosis? Discover Specialized Cancer Care in Southwestern Oregon
The initial stages of cancer treatment can be particularly overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone. At the Community Cancer Center, we understand the complexities of this path and are here to guide you every step of the way.
We recognize the challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis, and our goal is to offer personalized support that caters to your unique needs. If you’re seeking more information about the range of treatment options available, our Roseburg oncology team is here to provide you with insights, answer your questions and assist you in making informed decisions about your care.
Give us a call at 541-673-2267 (Ext. 5100) to learn more.