Can cancer be inherited?
Genes contain the information your body uses to grow and function. You have 2 copies of each gene, with 1 copy inherited from each parent. Sometimes, particular mutations, or changes, to genes can increase the risk of developing cancer. These mutations may be a sporadic, one-time change that occurs during your life. Or, the mutations may be inherited from your parents.
When a certain type of cancer seems to be common in a family, doctors may be able to identify the specific genetic change causing the increased risk. These types of genetic changes are called “hereditary cancers” or “inherited cancer syndromes.” Specific laboratory tests can identify these changes before cancer even develops.
An example of inherited genetic changes that may increase a person’s risk of developing cancer, and at an earlier age than other people, are BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. These mutations increase the risk of breast cancer and pancreatic cancer in both men and women, the risk of ovarian cancer in women, and the risk of prostate cancer in men.
What are the signs that I may have an inherited cancer syndrome?
Many times, the first tool in detecting an inherited cancer syndrome is a family history of cancer. Knowing your family history helps your doctor begin to think about whether inherited cancer syndromes may be a possibility. If you have a family member who has already been diagnosed with an inherited cancer syndrome, they may know the specific genetic change that your doctor should consider. The ethnic origin of your ancestors may also play a role in determining which cancers you’re more likely to inherit.