What to do if Cancer Runs in the Family?

By Hetal Vig, MS, MGC, as published in the April edition of the New Jersey Department of Health's 'New Jersey Health Matters'

multi-generational familiesMany Americans have a family history of cancer. Therefore, they may want to know if they too will develop cancer and may choose to explore this through genetic testing and counseling. Not all cancers are “hereditary.” Hereditary refers to a change (or mutation) in a gene that has been passed from parent to child resulting in an increased chance for certain types of cancer. This is why in families with hereditary cancer, typically there are multiple individuals with related cancers at young ages over many generations. The percentage of cancers that are hereditary varies, but for the more common types of cancer like breast and colon cancer, less than 10 percent of all cancers diagnosed are hereditary. 

Although it may be difficult to hear that there may be a genetic mutation causing the cancer in the family, most individuals ultimately find this information very empowering.

If you have a cancer diagnosis, genetic testing will not tell you whether or not your cancer will come back or spread to another site. Instead, it will help you understand why you developed and your risk for a new cancer. Genetic testing will also inform management strategies for unaffected family members as well.

What is the first step? Consultation with a genetic counselor may be very beneficial if you have a family history of cancer that matches the description of “hereditary cancer” described above. At The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, there is a multidisciplinary team of board certified genetic counselors, medical oncologists who specialize in high-risk patients, surgical oncologists, and social workers to help patients understand their level of risk based on their family history and what they can do to detect cancer early or prevent it altogether. 

Although it may be difficult to hear that there may be a genetic mutation causing the cancer in the family, most individuals ultimately find this information very empowering. Once equipped with this knowledge, individuals and their healthcare team can establish the best plan for prevention and early detection of cancer. Individuals with an inherited genetic change typically start cancer screening at earlier ages resulting in cancer prevention or early detection, such as colonoscopy every year if there is a high risk of colon cancer. Removing a polyp found at the time of a colonoscopy will reduce the risk of developing a colon cancer.

Determining if your family has an inherited genetic mutation may not only prevent you from developing cancer, but also your loved ones. After all, knowledge is power.

 Hetal Vig, MS, MGC is a board certified genetic counselor at the LIFE Center in The Cancer Institute of New Jersey’s Hereditary Oncology Prevention and Evaluation (HOPE) Program.

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