Why You Need to Know Your Family History of Cancer

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Have you had a close relative who’s had cancer? Research suggests it pays to know your family history of cancer because it may increase your overall cancer risk.

Increased Risk for Same or Different Cancer

We’ve known for some time that if a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) has a cancer such as breast or colon cancer, your risk of developing that cancer increases.

Now, a large study of 23,000 people from Europe, published in the Annals of Oncology, indicates there’s an association between your family’s history of cancer and your chances of developing either the same or a different cancer.

Some of the Findings:

  • Women with a family history of colorectal cancer had an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • People with a first-degree relative who had cancer of the larynx (voice box) had an increased risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer.
  • People with a first-degree relative who had oral or pharyngeal cancer had an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus.
  • People with a first-degree relative who had breast cancer had an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Men with a first-degree relative who had bladder cancer had an increased risk of prostate cancer.

The researchers examined 12,000 cases of cancer in 13 parts of the body reported between 1991 and 2009 and matched them to control cases of 11,000 people without cancer. They collected information on any cancer in the family, plus data on health and lifestyle factors, such as tobacco and alcohol use, that can influence cancer risk.

The study’s authors say the results indicate genetic factors have a role in multiple cancers, meaning that inheriting a particular gene may increase your chances of getting several types of cancer. That knowledge may help your doctor talk to you about the screenings you may need and whether genetic counseling is appropriate.

Family History Just One Piece of the Puzzle

If this all sounds a bit discouraging, it shouldn’t be. Remember, the study found a link between a family history of cancer and your own risk—it didn’t find a cause-and-effect. You can’t control your genes, but you can use that information to help you remain healthy.

People get cancer for many reasons other than genes, and a family history doesn’t doom you to cancer. In fact, the majority of cancers can be linked to environmental factors—smoking, drinking to excess, eating a poor diet, and failing to lead an active lifestyle—all of which you can control. Knowing your genetic history is but one piece of the puzzle in preventing cancer.

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Randall A. Oyer, MD

Randall A. Oyer, MD, is medical director of the Cancer and Cancer Risk Evaluation programs at the Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute and a physician with LG Health Physicians LG Health Physicians.

Education: Medical School—Georgetown University School of Medicine; Residency and fellowship—Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Call: 717-544-9400

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The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.

 

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