What Does It Mean to Have a Genetic Predisposition to Cancer?

Healthy Choices

When we hear about a genetic predisposition for cancer we probably all wonder – do we have it?  It seems that a lot of discussion about a genetic predisposition for breast cancer takes place in the media but there are genetic predispositions for other types of cancer as well.  A genetic predisposition can exist for breast cancer, endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer and more.  MD Anderson Cancer Center gives a general overview of a genetic predisposition for cancer and how it may impact diagnosis, “Approximately 5-10% of all cancers are hereditary. Hereditary cancers are attributable to changes (or mutations) in specific genes that are passed from one blood relative to another. Individuals who inherit one of these gene changes will have a higher likelihood of developing cancer within their lifetime. Currently, we have an understanding about mutations in several genes that increase the risk for developing several types of cancer; however, we have not yet identified genetic causes for all types of cancer.”

It is important to inform your physician of any family history of cancer, whether it is one person or a strong family history involving multiple individuals diagnosed with the same kind of cancer.  While a genetic predisposition does not guarantee  that you will get cancer, and other factors must also be considered, it will play an important role in your approach, and your physician’s approach, to your healthcare.  If you have a strong family history or just want to know if you have a genetic predisposition to a certain kind of cancer there are genetic tests that can be conducted that will test your DNA and determine whether or not you have an increased likelihood of getting cancer.  The National Cancer Institute describes what is involved with genetic testing and how it is used in a medical setting to help you with your health and treatment, “For an increasing number of diseases, DNA-based testing can be used to identify a specific mutation as the cause of inherited risk and to determine whether family members have inherited the disease-related mutation…Correctly recognizing and identifying individuals and families at increased risk of developing cancer is one of countless important roles for primary care and other health care providers. Once identified, these individuals can then be appropriately referred for genetic counseling, risk assessment, consideration of genetic testing, and development of a management plan… Concluding that an individual is at increased risk of developing cancer may have important, potentially life-saving management implications and may lead to specific interventions aimed at reducing risk (e.g., tamoxifen for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colon cancer, or risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy for ovarian cancer). Genetic information may also provide a direct health benefit by demonstrating the lack of an inherited cancer susceptibility. For example, if a family is known to carry a cancer-predisposing mutation in a particular gene, a family member may experience reduced worry and lower health care costs if his or her genetic test indicates that he or she does not carry the family’s disease-related mutation…Knowledge about a cancer-predisposing mutation can be informative not only for the individual tested but also for other family members. Family members who previously had not considered the implications of their family history for their own health may be led to do so, and some will undergo genetic testing, resulting in more definitive information on whether they are at increased genetic risk.”  The knowledge of a genetic predisposition can be both enlightening and burdensome and that is why it is wise to seek the advice of a genetic counselor as well as your physician for guidance as to what to do with the information.



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