The link between cancer and genetics: What you should know

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While taking active steps to reduce your risk of cancer is incredibly important, there’s a risk factor that is out of your control: your genes. Cancer is a disease that does not discriminate, and for that reason, many people are diligent about staying on top of their health, whether through proper diet, exercise or annual screenings. However, knowing your family’s health history is just as crucial as scheduling your annual check-up, and it may be what helps you best understand your risk.

Cancer is caused by cells that grow out of control, particularly because of genetic changes. A percentage of cancers are thought to result directly from gene defects, called mutations, which are inherited from a parent. For this reason, it’s important to be equipped with knowledge of your family’s health history so that you can take preventative measures if possible. I recommend the below action steps to reduce your risk:

*Determine what, if any, cancer exists in your family’s health history. *Most people are aware of the cancer history within their immediate family, but you should consider all members, whether male or female. This includes those who had more than one type of cancer diagnosis, those diagnosed before age 50, individuals who had a rare cancer or family members who had related types of cancer. Understanding your background can help distinguish risk factors, as certain types of cancer can carry a hereditary risk. These cancers often include breast cancer, melanoma, and pancreatic cancer to name a few.

*If your family has a history of certain cancers, keep your physician informed so you can both determine next steps. Once you have  evidence of your family’s cancer history, a primary care physician, OB-GYN or other healthcare professional may decide to refer you to a genetics professional, such as a genetic counselor, who can further determine hereditary predisposition to cancer and how to take action. These experts examine odds, provide cancer screening recommendations and help decide if genetic testing is needed. During this type of visit, many doctors will discuss the probability of a patient’s child inheriting the genetic defect as well as implications for other family members. At this consultation, the patient will be provided information regarding individual and family risk
and the potential impact results will have on his or her health.

While knowing your likelihood of developing cancer may seem like a frightening concept, I highly recommend pursuing a conversation with your healthcare provider if you believe you may be at risk.

*Altovise Ewing, PhD is a genetic counselor at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Southeastern Regional Medical Center (Southeastern) in the metropolitan Atlanta community of Newnan, Ga.*

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