Understanding the Link Between Family History and Your Cancer Risk!
At its most basic level, a cancer occurs when the control center inside a cell mutates or changes—causing the cell to grow and reproduce abnormally. Cancers can affect any cell inside the human body and have many causes that range from exposure to cancer-causing agents (called carcinogens) to genetic factors that may have been passed down from your parents. Whether or not you’ll develop cancer in your lifetime really depends, but understanding your family history can help your medical team monitor for changes that could affect your well-being in the future.
What’s happening with your genes, anyway?
It may seem a little complicated but your genes are at the center of your cancer risk. Genes are part of your DNA and they control how cells function including how quickly it grows, divides and even how long it lives. Researchers say there are about 30,000 genes in each cell of your body. They control the function and production of proteins inside cells that work as messengers. When a gene mutates or changes, the messages sent by the cell are incorrect and will cause the cell to function abnormally. This abnormal function may cause cancer.
Two types of cancers: Know the difference
There are two main types of cancers. One group you develop over time as a result of lifestyle choices or behaviors—like smoking or spending too much time in the sun—that cause cells to change. These are called acquired mutations, and your genetic or family history may have very little effect on the development of a cancer in this situation.
The second group, known as germline mutations are less common than acquired ones, but are passed from parent to child and the genetic mutation is found in every cell of that person’s body—even in eggs or sperm. Cancers that develop for these people make up 5%-10% of total cancer cases and are called inherited cancers. Knowing your family history will help you to understand your risk for germline mutation cancers.
What role does your family history play in your risk?
The best way to understand your family history (if you don’t already know) is to ask. Find out about cancers in your family from relatives. Ask about the type of cancer, how old they were when it developed, and about their lifestyle. Write this information down and keep it with you so you can discuss it with your doctor. There are also genetic cancer screening tests that can provide information about genetic mutations you may be carrying that raise your risk for a particular type of cancer. From here you can work with your healthcare team to make a plan for monitoring that can keep you healthier longer. In addition, you can take steps to change lifestyle choices that could raise your risk for cancer development. It may seem scary to know your cancer risk, but in this case knowledge will be your strength and you won’t be alone as you work toward the best possible outcome. Talk to your doctor to learn more.