Health Library

Categories > Cancer > Cancer prevention

Cancer: All in your genes?
The family factor
You play an important role

Should you have genetic testing?
Should you have genetic testing?

Genetic testing is a good idea for some people. First, research your family’s cancer history. Enlist other family members and aim to get three generations’ worth of information. For each instance of cancer, note the person’s sex, age when diagnosed, other diseases or medical conditions, diet and exercise habits and age and cause of death. Ask your doctor about genetic testing if you have:

  • several first degree relatives (parents or siblings) with cancer, especially the same type
  • family members who developed cancer at a young age
  • close relatives with rare forms of cancer
  • a family member known to have a genetic mutation

Sometimes it feels as if cancer is inevitable. Many of us may know so many people with cancer, especially in our own families, that getting cancer ourselves seems only a matter of time. Although this pessimistic sentiment may be commonplace, thankfully, you can take steps to lower your risk.

The family factor

Some cancers are caused by an abnormal gene that’s passed down from generation to generation. But it’s the abnormal gene that’s inherited, not the disease. In any case, only 5 percent to 10 percent of all cancers are referred to as inherited cancers and may include:

Some breast and ovarian cancers. Mutations occurring in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are common causes of inherited cancers. Women with these mutations are more likely to develop hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome. Most breast cancers, however, even among close relatives, are not due to these mutations.

Some colon cancers. An inherited condition called familial adenomatous polyposis causes people to begin developing colon polyps as early as their teens. Left alone, these polyps may become malignant. Another syndrome called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer leads to a high risk for colon cancer, especially before age 50, and a greater risk for endometrial cancer in women.

Childhood cancers. Only a few childhood cancers are inherited. Retinoblastoma starts in the eye, and Li-Fraumeni syndrome leads to a higher risk for childhood sarcoma, leukemia, brain cancers and subsequent cancers later in life.

You play an important role

Although you can’t change your family history, you can significantly lower your chance of getting cancer by taking the following steps:

Avoid tobacco. Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in this country, causing more than 430,000 deaths each year. Another 38,000 deaths each year are attributed to secondhand smoke.

Protect yourself from the sun. If we all used sunscreen, wore sun-protective clothing and avoided tanning, many of the more than 1 million skin cancers detected each year could be prevented.

Eat right, exercise and keep your weight in check. About one-third of yearly cancer deaths are related to poor eating habits, excess weight and lack of exercise. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; limit foods high in saturated fats; get at least 30 to 40 minutes of physical activity five days a week; and maintain a healthy weight.