It seems as though every time you turn around, there’s new research that exposes another cancer risk, whether it be cell phones, plastic water bottles or another commonly used item. While these are all important factors to consider, one of the most important determinants in cancer risk might be in your family tree.
According to Rachael Brandt, Certified Genetic Counselor with the Main Line Health Cancer Risk Assessment and Genetics Program, about 10 percent of cancers are thought to be hereditary, including breast, ovarian and colon cancer. Knowing your family cancer history can help you determine your cancer risk and be proactive in preventing it.
In looking at your family's cancer history, there are a number of factors to consider. It is most important to determine who had cancer, what type of cancer it was and at what age it was diagnosed.
Another important key to determining risk is to find out is where the cancer originated in the body. A family member may have died from liver cancer, but it may have started somewhere else and spread to the liver. The original cancer site is the one of importance.
In looking back at family history, don’t just consider your immediate family. The health history of cousins, great grandparents and great aunts and uncles from both your mother’s and your father’s sides of the family should all be noted. Ethnicity also plays a role in genetics, as there are types of ancestry in which cancer-related genes are more prevalent, such as Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
Reviewing your family history with a genetic counselor and/or physician can provide a guide to your risk, when cancer screenings should begin and what types are appropriate, and whether genetic testing might be indicated.
If you are unsure of your family history or want to determine your risk for certain cancers, genetic testing is also an option. “Genetic testing involves providing a sample of DNA via a blood or saliva sample for testing,” explains Brandt. “Though the test itself is relatively simple, a thorough genetic evaluation is more complex.”
An evaluation involves a detailed pedigree analysis, genetic counseling and education, interpretation of the results and risk management recommendations, and more. An individual can undergo genetic evaluation without choosing to have genetic testing, though in some cases testing may provide more specific information about cancer risk.
If You Are at Risk…
Cancer screenings typically begin earlier and occur more frequently for at-risk patients. Individuals at high cancer risk may also consider different options of prevention. Talk to your doctor about which approach is best for you. To make an appointment with a Main Line Health physician, visit our website.