CAN CANCER RUN IN THE FAMILY?
Is cancer hereditary? This question looms large in the minds of many who have seen their relatives battle the disease. While cancer is a complex illness with numerous causes, understanding the role of genetics can help clarify your own risk.
What Does "Running in the Family" Mean?
When we say cancer can “run in the family,” we’re talking about a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer if you have close relatives who have had it. It doesn’t mean you’re doomed to get cancer; rather, it implies an increased risk compared to the general population. This doesn’t mean that you definitely get cancer. Your risk is the same as everyone else. You can still reduce your risk by choosing a healthy lifestyle.
Statistics: A Quick Look
- Between 3 and 10 out of 100 cancers relate to an inherited faulty gene.
- Most cancers arise from lifestyle factors like ageing, smoking, and poor diet.
Cancers More Likely to Be Genetic
Certain cancers, like breast, bowel, and ovarian cancer, are more likely to be hereditary. Other types, such as lung and cervical cancer, generally have less to do with family history.
Red Flags in Family History
You might have a genetic predisposition if:
- Multiple close relatives on the same side of the family have the same type of cancer.
- Cancer occurs in family members below the age of 50.
- A relative has had multiple types of cancer.
How Genes Play a Role
Your cells contain genes that control how they grow and behave. Faults or mutations in these genes can lead to cancer. While most mutations happen over time due to various factors, some can be inherited. These are known as germline mutations.
Inherited Gene Faults
Inherited gene faults can come from either parent and are present in every cell of your body. If one parent has a gene fault, there is a 50% chance you may inherit it. It doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer for sure, but your risk is higher.
How Common Are Hereditary Cancers?
Inherited faulty genes account for between 5 and 10% of all cancers. Most people develop cancer due to a combination of chance and environment, rather than due to an inherited gene fault.
What to Do If You Have a Strong Family History
Talk to your GP if you have a strong family history of cancer. Your GP may refer you to a genetics clinic for further testing and guidance on managing your risk.
What If You Have a Known Gene Fault?
Your healthcare team may suggest regular monitoring or even preventative surgery if you have a known gene fault.
Other Factors That Matter
Other factors, such as lifestyle and age, also contribute to cancer risk. For a person to develop cancer, multiple factors usually need to align. You can read more about more about how diet can reduce cancer risk in our article “Foods to Reduce Cancer Risk“
Understanding your family history can help you assess your risk of developing cancer. While inherited gene faults may put you at higher risk, they’re just one piece of the puzzle. For personalized advice, or if you worried about something consult your GP or a genetics specialist.