Cancer and the role of genetics

February 18, 2016 Anne Hoppie

Cancer is a genetic disease, which means it is caused by changes or mutations in our genes. These changes can be due to inherited genetic mutations or changes that occur during our lifetime. Inherited genetic mutations are passed on from our parents and are present at birth.

According to the National Cancer Institute, only 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are caused by inherited genetic mutations. The other 90 to 95 percent of cancers are caused by genetic changes that occur during one’s lifetime such as exposure to certain chemicals or substances such as tobacco, or exposure to environmental factors such as ultraviolet sun rays. Often, however, acquired genetic changes leading to cancer have no known cause other than chance errors that occur during normal cell division in the body.

A family history of cancer

Unfortunately, cancer is a common disease and many of us can think of multiple members of our family who have had cancer. A family history of cancer can be the result of the following factors:

  • Chance: The high incidence of cancer means some families will have multiple members affected by this disease.
  • Environment: Family members often are exposed to the same environmental chemicals or substances that can increase their risk of developing cancer.
  • Inheritance: Gene mutations can be passed on or inherited by family members.

Genetic testing could be next step

What should you do if you have a family history of cancer?

  • Document your family health history. Compile a family tree of three generations. Include your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, and your children. As completely as possible, write down the type of cancer each family member had or has, and the age when diagnosed. If you have a family history of cancer, talk to a Providence cancer specialist in your area about whether genetic testing is right for you.For family members who passed away from cancer, also write down the age when they died.
  • Discuss your family history with your health care provider. A family history of cancer may indicate the need for additional screening to detect cancer at the earliest stage possible. Your physician may also recommend a referral to a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can help clarify your chance of developing cancer based on family history and can discuss the potential benefits and disadvantages of genetic testing.
  • Understand all of your risk factors, including family history and lifestyle. Everyone can benefit from eating a balanced diet high in fiber and low in fat, from quitting smoking and from living a healthy lifestyle.

More treatment options expected

Advances in genetic testing make this an exciting time for those of us who provide cancer care. Many new treatments have become available, and more will come due to rapid progress in genetic testing and drug development.

Researchers have found specific genetic mutations in some cancer tumors and have developed targeted therapies to slow the growth of these cancer cells. Cancer researchers currently are working on more specific genetic testing to allow cancer patients to have personalized treatment.

In the future, cancer patients will have more treatment options with fewer side effects and an increased survival time — and all of us will have more options to decrease our chances of ever developing cancer.

If you have a family history of cancer, talk to a Providence cancer specialist in your area about whether genetic testing is right for you.

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