Genes carry information that determines characteristics passed down from parent to child. They also carry instructions for making proteins. Proteins do most of the work in your body’s cells. Sometimes, the protein-making instructions go awry. They cause cells to grow, divide and become cancer.
Most cancer is sporadic — occurring when there is no family history of cancer. It happens over time and is caused by changes in a gene. Those sporadic changes are believed to be caused by things that increase the risk of cancer, such as exposure to radiation, tobacco, or other lifestyle factors. However, about 5 to 10 percent of cancers are believed to be hereditary — caused by a genetic change passed down from one generation to the next.
Hereditary Cancer Syndromes
Some cancers seem to run in families. A person doesn’t inherit cancer but inherits an abnormal gene that can increase the risk of cancer. When a person with cancer carries an abnormal gene, that person is diagnosed with hereditary cancer syndrome. Breast and colon cancer are the most common cancers seen in hereditary cancer syndromes. Sporadic cancer, however, can occur in multiple family members due to environmental exposure. Family members might share behaviors and lifestyles that can increase cancer risk, such as smoking, obesity, or environmental exposures. Lung cancer is an example of cancer caused by tobacco use.
Signs and conditions that may indicate cancer is caused by hereditary cancer syndrome include but are not limited to:
- Colon cancer diagnosis before age 60
- Breast cancer diagnosis before age 50
- Family history of breast cancer or colon cancer
- More than two first-degree relatives with breast cancer
- Family history of endometrial and colon cancer
- Male breast cancer
- Two first-degree relatives with pancreatic cancer
- Ovarian cancer at any age
- Cancer diagnosis with unknown family history
- Particular ancestry, such as Ashkenazi Jewish with a personal or family history of cancer
- Breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer
- Metastatic prostate cancer
At the WVU Cancer Institute, we offer early intervention and specialized screening for those at high risk for certain cancers.
We treat all types of cancers, including those related to heredity cancer syndrome. These include:
- Colorectal cancer
- Cowden syndrome
- Familial adenomatosis polyposis
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer
- Hereditary neuroendocrine disorder
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Lynch syndrome
Genetic counseling can help you assess your cancer risk. Knowing more about your genetic makeup can especially be helpful to people with cancer or who have a family history of cancer.
Our genetic professionals explain how genetic conditions might affect you and your family. With the information provided by the genetics team, you will be able to decide whether or not you want to proceed with genetic testing.
If you do have testing done, we can help you understand your results. We will refer you to specialists, suggest treatment options, and connect you to advocacy and support groups.
Inherited genetic changes cause approximately 5 to 10 percent of all cancers. If you suspect you’re at increased risk of developing cancer, genetic testing may be part of a plan to protect your health. The information allows doctors to monitor your health, and if signs of cancer emerge, they can act right away.
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network – Genetic/Familial High-Risk Assessment: Breast and Ovarian (Version 1.2020)
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network — Genetic/Familial High-Risk Assessment: Colorectal (Version 3.2019)
- National Cancer Institute Fact Sheets: Genetic Testing for Inherited Cancer Susceptibility Syndromes (Reviewed March 15, 2019)