A common question we see on our Facebook page is “What is hereditary cancer?” Cancer is common, and many people have at least one relative who has the disease. Most cancer occurs sporadically (by chance), but when there is an inherited gene mutation that causes cancer being passed down within a family, that’s known as hereditary cancer. Below are five facts about hereditary cancer and hereditary cancer syndromes.
1. Up to 10 percent of cancer occurs due to inherited gene changes1
In families with an inherited gene change, an increased risk for cancer is being passed down through generations by an altered gene – a gene with a mutation. People in a family with hereditary cancer are more likely to have relatives with the same type or related types of cancer. They may develop more than one cancer or their cancer may occur at an earlier-than-average age.
2. Having an inherited increased risk for cancer changes how your health care providers take care of you.
Depending on the mutation, your healthcare team will determine a medical management plan based on recommendations specific to the affected gene. This plan will include ways to reduce your cancer risk as well as strategies for detecting cancer as early as possible.
3. People with an inherited gene mutation have a 50 percent chance of passing the mutation down2
If a gene mutation is identified in you, there is a 50 percent chance of passing it down to each of your children. It’s important to note that if a person is born with a gene mutation, it does not mean that he or she will develop cancer. It just means the person faces an increased risk of developing cancer.
4. For cancer survivors, this may affect your follow-up care
If you have a history of cancer caused by an inherited gene mutation, your follow-up care may be different compared to care plans for those with sporadic cancer. If you are found to have a gene mutation, your chances of developing a second cancer are much higher3. Your healthcare team will adjust your medical management plans based on this information.
5. Even if you are not found to have a gene mutation, you could face a somewhat higher risk of develop cancer.
Another classification of cancer falls into a category called “familial cancer”. It is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. People with familial cancer may have one or more relatives with the same type of cancer. However, there does not appear to be a specific pattern of inheritance and it may be occurring at similar ages as the general population. In this case, the risk of developing cancer is not as high as it is among those with a hereditary cancer syndrome.
If you think a hereditary cancer syndrome might be affecting your family, look for these signs:
- Multiple family members with cancer on the same side of the family
- Cancer that occurs at an earlier age than it would among the general population (less than age 50), such as breast or colon cancer in a 30-year-old
- Cancer that occurs in pairs of organs, like in both breasts
- More than one type of cancer occurring in one person, such as a woman having both breast and ovarian cancers
- Family member(s) with unusual cancers, such as male breast cancer