Caring Currents

What To Do When There's Cancer In Your Family

Last updated: Dec 11, 2009

Family portrait.
Image by San Jose Library used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

I was reading some of the recent and moving messages accompanying Caring Candles today, and it struck me how many were about cancer, and how many mentioned having several family members die of cancer.

When this happens, it can be scary. Are you afraid your family has a higher than normal incidence of cancer? Many people, faced with multiple cases of cancer in their family, conclude that cancer's likely to be in their future as well.

But hold on -- that's not necessarily true. Just because several people in your family have had cancer doesn't mean you actually have a hereditary risk.

Consider this situation: Your father died of lung cancer, and your sister just discovered she has cervical cancer. That sounds like a lot of cancer, doesn't it? But if your father was a smoker, that could be the real culprit in his case. And if your sister was exposed to the HPV virus, her cancer could have started that way. Grandfather had skin cancer? Perhaps fishing was his favorite weekend pastime --and he didn't wear sunscreen. So you see, even two or more cases of cancer in your immediate family doesn't mean you actually have a hereditary risk.

The reason this is so confusing is that all cancer is technically genetic in origin. All cancers are caused by changes to our genes, which are basically units of information that control our cells. Some genes tell our bodies how to repair damage from environmental toxins, sun exposure, dietary factors, hormones, and other influences, or tell our cells when to stop growing.

When changes called mutations occur in the genes, certain cells can grow out of control and cause cancer. Gene mutations that can lead to cancer usually happen later in life, caused by lifetime exposure to things such as smoke, hormones, certain viruses, certain chemicals in the environment or in our diets. But not all cell damage leads to cancer, because our bodies have ways to repair the damage.

And cancer doesn't happen all at once but slowly, usually involving damage to multiple genes, over a period of several years.

Yes, there are hereditary cancer syndromes caused by inherited gene mutations that run in some families. The two most common are the BRCA mutations, which cause breast and ovarian cancer, and a hereditary colon cancer syndrome known as HNPCC (Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer) that also raises the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer. If family members have developed breast, colon, or ovarian cancer at unusually young ages, your doctor may recommend genetic testing.

But here's the bottom line: Because cancer is a common disease, most families will have several people who develop cancer, -- but the cause isn't an inherited gene mutation. At least 90 percent of cancers are not caused by these inherited syndromes.

So don't assume that cancer in your family means a genetic blueprint for cancer; but do take steps to protect yourself from the things that lead to cancer-causing mutations. There are cancer-prevention strategies that really work.

A few key mutation-prevention tips:
1. Don't smoke; quit if you do.
2. Stay out of the midday sun or wear high-SPF sunscreen.
3. Get the Gardasil HPV vaccine if you're under the age of 27 and get regular pap smears. The Gardasil recommendation may soon change to include women ages 27 to 45.
3. Don't drink more than one (women) to two (men) drinks a day or eat smoked or preserved meats.