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Categories > Cancer > Cancer prevention and screenings

All in the family

When an aunt, a cousin or a sister develops cancer, it’s quite common to wonder: Will I get it, too?

For most people, the answer is no. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of the more than 1 million cancers diagnosed every year are inherited. But if you have a strong family history of a certain type of cancer, your healthcare provider may want to keep a closer eye on you.

Am I at risk?

To determine your risk, your provider takes a detailed family history. Armed with this information, he or she can look for factors that put you at higher risk, including having:

  • family members who developed cancer 10 to 20 years earlier than normal; for example, breast cancer before age 50 or colorectal cancer before age 60
  • two or more family members in the same generation who’ve had a specific type of cancer
  • a family history of tumors found in both breasts or at two spots in the same organ
  • a combination of specific cancer growths within your family, such as breast and ovarian cancers or colorectal and uterine cancers (some inherited cancers increase the odds of developing other types of cancer)

If you’re at high risk of developing certain types of cancer, blood testing can determine if you’ve inherited a cancer gene. For instance, in women with a strong family history of breast cancer, blood tests can detect inherited mutations in the BRCA genes. Women with the mutations face up to an 85 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 60 percent risk of ovarian cancer.

Remember, a family history of cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop cancer in your lifetime. But knowing your family’s cancer background allows you and your healthcare provider to take the needed steps to help prevent you from having the same fate.

Reducing your risk

A surefire way to prevent cancer may not exist, but you may be able to reduce your risk with a few measures:

  • Limit alcohol to one drink a day or cut it out completely.
  • Exercise on most or all days for at least 30 minutes.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re not sure what your target weight is, ask your healthcare provider about measuring your body mass index (BMI).
  • Quit smoking and avoid places where people light up.
  • Eat right. That means consuming lots of fruits, vegetables and fiber and cutting back on processed foods and saturated fats.
  • Get screened. If your cancer risk is higher than average, your healthcare provider may recommend testing at a younger age.
  • Discuss preventive medicine and surgery. Medications such as tamoxifen can lower the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women. And although it may seem drastic, removing the breasts, colon or ovaries before cancer can strike may be an option for women who face a very high risk of developing the disease in these organs.