Beating The Odds: How To Combat Your Family History Of Cancer

If cancer runs in your family, you probably understand that you have an increased risk of developing cancer in your own lifetime. However, you may not understand what you should do with this information. Exactly how substantial are the risks, and, more importantly, is there anything you can do to protect yourself against them? According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of developing a genetically linked form of cancer depends on factors such as who in your family has had the cancer, the ages of these individuals and the type of cancer. The appropriate preventative measures vary with the type of cancer, but genetic counseling is often the best first step toward making appropriate decisions regarding your health.

Image by Iqbal Osman via Flickr
Image by Iqbal Osman via Flickr

When to Worry

Most cancers are not due to genetic factors, notes the American Cancer Society. In some cases, it seems like a certain form of cancer runs in a family when the reality is that several family members were exposed to the same carcinogen, such as cigarette smoke. There are no straightforward formulas you can use to determine when your family history of cancer is significant enough to warrant concern, but there are general indicators that can suggest when a cancer-causing gene is likely to affect you.

Numerous cases of a rare form of cancer in one family is strong indication that a genetic mutation is to blame. You are also especially at risk of inheriting a cancer-linked gene if people in your family seem to get cancer at an abnormally young age. Also ask yourself whether your affected family members tend to develop cancer in pairs of organs, such as in both breasts or both kidneys. This is yet another strong sign that you should receive genetic testing to determine whether you carry a genetic mutation for a type of cancer.

Genetic Counseling and Testing

A genetic counselor can help you determine whether it is in your best interest to undergo genetic testing. The decision is based on both your family background and the potential psychological or social consequences of finding out you carry a genetic mutation, explains Cancer.Net. If you decide to proceed with the testing, a blood sample is usually the only requirement to check your genome for mutations.


Protect Your Health

Finding out you carry the gene for a specific form of cancer is not a death sentence, but it does mean it’s time to start taking the appropriate measures to minimize your heightened risk. If you test positive for MLH1, MSH2 or another mutation linked to colon cancer, it is imperative to receive regular colonoscopies to catch any early signs of abnormalities, as a article explains. Similarly, regular mammograms are important if you carry a mutation for breast cancer. Depending on the mutation, you may consider breast and ovary removal, as the BRCA1 mutation in particular places you at an 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer.

Another form of cancer that can result from a genetic mutation is prostate cancer. Beginning prostate cancer screenings at an earlier age than usual is the best way to protect yourself against this form of cancer. A general rule is to begin screenings at an age 10 years younger than the youngest age at which a person in your family was diagnosed. For example, if the youngest family member received his diagnosis at age 45, you should begin screening at 35.

Finding out you carry a genetic mutation for cancer is scary. It can feel like you’re walking around with a ticking time bomb inside of your every cell, but it is important to remember that you can dramatically increase your chances of never getting cancer with regular screening and other preventative measures. Talk with your genetic counselor about the appropriate steps to take based on your genetic makeup and the form of cancer that runs in your family.

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