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It Runs in the Family: The Risk of Hereditary Cancer

Photo credit: Mass General Cancer Center

Most everyone has a personal connection to cancer, whether through a loved one or themselves. But some families are impacted more than others. While most cancers are caused by the aging process, certain lifestyle factors, environmental exposures, or chance events, about five to 10 percent of cancers (one in 10) are hereditary.

A hereditary cancer occurs when a person is born with an alteration in their DNA or genetic material that increases the chance to develop certain types of cancer. This alteration, also known as a gene mutation, can be passed on from one generation to the next.

So how do you know when to suspect a hereditary cause of cancer? Families with a hereditary cancer syndrome often show one or more of the following features:

  • Multiple family members on the same side of a family with cancer
  • Cancer occurring over multiple generations
  • Earlier age at cancer diagnosis than expected (usually under the age of 50)
  • Family members who have developed more than one cancer (i.e. multiple primary cancers)
  • Uncommon cancers (i.e. ovarian or pancreatic cancer)
  • Certain ancestry backgrounds (some predisposition syndromes are more common in particular ethnic groups)

Hereditary cancer risk assessment

At Mass General’s Center for Cancer Risk Assessment (CCRA), the certified and licensed genetic counselors and physicians provide comprehensive counseling and genetic testing services for people at a higher risk for inherited cancers. Within a family, this risk often clusters around a specific type of tumor, such as breast, ovarian, colon, stomach, kidney, melanoma, prostate, or pancreas. They educate families about their cancer risk and help determine if their personal or family history of cancer could be due to a hereditary cancer syndrome. Genetic counseling can help those at greater risk for certain cancers better understand their test results and how they may affect other family members. The CCRA team also helps these individuals make informed decisions about their healthcare and offers specialized screenings and risk-reducing options to manage increased cancer risks.

Support at the Center for Cancer Risk Assessment

Mass General’s Center for Cancer Risk Assessment also offers various support programs for patients and families affected by cancer. On November 18, the center is hosting a free conference, Pancreatic Cancer: Your Family, Genes, and Cancer Risk for patients and families to learn about recent updates in hereditary cancer risk assessment for pancreatic cancer.

If cancer “runs” in your family, assessing your risk could be one of the most important decisions you make. The experienced team of genetic counselors and physicians at the Center for Cancer Risk Assessment is constantly working to develop a better understanding of the genetic causes of cancer as well as to advance cancer treatment and screenings.

Request an appointment or a second opinion with a specialist at the Mass General Cancer Center today to stay one step ahead of cancer. 

For more information, visit massgeneral.org/cancer.