There is still a lot we don’t know about cancer. A diagnosis or even the thought of a future diagnosis can be scary. And what about your cancer risk? Many patients ask me “If a close family member has cancer, does that mean I will too?”
Through hereditary cancer assessments, we are now able to give patients insight into their potential cancer risk and help ease their worries by offering preventative screenings and early detection methods.
Here are five things I educate patients on when we discuss cancer risk:
1. A cancer diagnosis isn’t always your family’s genes fault. All cancers have a genetic origin – they result from genes in our body going haywire and causing abnormal growth. But what many people misunderstand though, is that it is not always the fault of your mother or father or relative’s genes. Surprising to some, only about 10% of cancer is known to be inherited from flawed genes carried down from a family member.
2. Age does impact your cancer risk. The older you are, the more “errors” there are that can occur in your DNA. So your lifetime cancer risk increases as you age, especially beyond 60 years old. However, one big indicator of inherited cancer risk (those who had gene mutations passed down to them from family) is if you have had relatives diagnosed as much younger ages – 40s/50s and younger. Those born with these inherited “bad” genes have an increased timeline of cancer risk than those without.
3. Lifestyle can make a difference. Individuals who have determined there is a genetic mutation in their family often assume their fate is also a cancer diagnosis. But some single gene abnormalities can only affect so much. For example, even though you may be genetically pre-dispositioned to lung cancer, if you never smoke, you could greatly affect your chances of a diagnosis. Think of heart disease. If an individual avoids smoking, maintains a healthy diet and weight, they can manage to avoid heart disease, even if they inherited the increased risk from a close family member.
4. Cancer risk can skip generations. Although you may be a carrier of a pre-dispositioned cancer mutation and you do not get cancer, your children could still be at risk since the effect of this “bad” gene may skip a generation.
5. Genetic discovery continues to evolve. While we know a lot more about genetics and cancer risk than even ten years ago, there is still so much to uncover. Some mutations are well defined today, where prevention and treatment plans can be initiated, while other genetic risk determinants may not presently be fully known, but will be clarified in the future. The work that has already been done continues to change and save lives, but there is still more to discover.
Burton Eisenberg is executive medical director, Hoag Family Cancer Institute, and Grace E. Hoag Executive Medical Director Endowed Chair, Hoag.
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