Cancer Clues Are In Your Genes

Cancer Clues Are In Your Genes

December 16, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Tara Balija, M.D., FACS
Debra Camal, M.D.
Ronald Matteotti, M.D.

It would be difficult to find a family that hasn’t been affected by some type of cancer. But when should a family be concerned about a genetic link to cancer?

“Although many people often worry that cancer present in a family can be passed down through the generations, it is actually uncommon,” says Tara Balija, M.D., Director of the Breast C.A.R.E. Program at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Only 5-10% of cancers are hereditary. Signs that a possible hereditary cause of cancer exists in your family include early age at onset, family members with the same cancer throughout multiple generations, or many close relatives with the same cancer.”

Two Categories of Gene Mutations

The are two main categories that gene mutations fall into.

  1. Genes that are changed during the course of a person’s lifetime are known as somatic, or acquired, mutations. These can occur when the DNA is damaged by exposure to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances, such as toxic chemicals or radiation.
  2. Genes can have mutations or errors in their “coding” from birth, having been passed along from the germ cells (egg and/or sperm) of parents. These kinds of cancers can be characterized as hereditary cancer syndromes, and researchers have identified specific gene mutations for about 50 of these syndromes.

When several family members develop cancer, it might be because they share certain habits (such as smoking) or environmental exposures (such as pollutants in air or water). But other factors, such as the age that cancer develops or the appearance of a non-cancerous disease, might be indicators of a hereditary cancer syndrome.

How to Assess Your Risk of Hereditary Cancer

One way to assess an individual’s cancer risk is to undergo genetic testing for hereditary cancer syndromes. “These tests should be ordered by a doctor after discussing the likely benefits and drawbacks of having this information,” says Debra Camal, M.D., medical director of Breast Surgery at Riverview Medical Center. “A full family history—both maternal and paternal sides of the family—and discussion with the referring physician can help determine the need for genetic testing for any individual with cancer or from a family with cancer.”

People who opt for genetic testing should enlist the help of a genetic counselor who can help you understand the test results.

Keep in mind that the presence of a certain gene mutation is not a guarantee that cancer will occur. And people with a “clean” test can still develop cancer because of environmental factors, like cigarette smoking or exposure to chemicals like arsenic or asbestos.

“We always stress cancer risk reduction as much as possible, with or without a genetic propensity,” says Ronald Matteotti, M.D., medical director of Hepatobiliary & Pancreatic Oncology at Hackensack Meridian Health Cancer Care in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. “Along with that, people should work with their health care provider to follow a cancer screening schedule that takes any genetic risk factors into account.”

Next Steps & Resources


The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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