Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center

What is Hereditary Cancer?

Genes are instructions for how the cells of the body should function and grow. When changes called mutations happen in certain genes, cells can grow out of control and become cancerous.

Some gene changes are inherited, meaning they are passed from parent to child. When cancer develops because of an inherited gene change, it is hereditary cancer. People with an inherited gene mutation may have a much higher risk of developing a cancer than most people. These people are said to have a hereditary cancer syndrome.

Cancer is a common disease, but less than 10% of cases are hereditary. Family members may wonder if they could be at higher risk of cancer, especially if several family members have been diagnosed. 

Who is Cancer Genetic Counseling For?

If you are concerned about the history of cancer for you and/or your family, you may benefit from the Hereditary Cancer Clinic.

Some of the features seen in families appropriate for referral include:

  • Clustering of certain types of cancers in a family such as breast, colon, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, uterine/endometrial, thyroid,and other cancers
  • Cancer occurring at younger ages than expected
  • The same type of cancer in several close relatives
  • Cancer in more than one generation
  • More than one cancer in the same person
  • Certain rare cancers
  • Known mutation in a cancer susceptibility gene in the family

For breast cancer families:

  • Breast cancer diagnosed before age 50, or “triple negative” breast cancer diagnosed before age  60
  • Male with breast cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish or Eastern European heritage and family history of breast or ovarian cancer

For colon and rectal cancer families:

  • Colorectal cancer or colon polyps before age 50
  • Colon cancer, plus uterine or ovarian cancer
  • Many colon polyps

Other tumors/cancers that may warrant referral:

  • Adrenocortical carcinoma
  • Desmoid tumors
  • Endocrine tumors (parathyroid, pituitary or other tumors of the endocrine system)
  • Hemangiomas
  • Medullary thyroid cancer
  • Pheochromocytoma
  • Retinoblastoma
  • Sarcoma

 

Why get Cancer Genetic Counseling?

If you are concerned about your risk of cancer, genetic counseling can help you understand your risks and options.

By understanding your personal cancer risk, you may be able to:

  • Identify family members who may have an increased risk of cancer
  • Develop a custom screening plan to increase the chance of early cancer detection
  • Gain reassurance, in some cases, that you or family members are not at increased risk for cancer

 

Genetic testing

Genetic testing is available for several genes known to cause hereditary cancer syndromes. Genetic testing can:

  • Help your medical team make decisions about your care, such as cancer screenings or prevention options, if you carry a specific gene mutation
  • Provide cancer risk information for you and other family members

Genetic testing is usually done with a small blood sample. Sometimes, a mouth rinse sample can be used instead of blood.

If possible, genetic testing should be started in a person who has had cancer. This is because a family member with cancer has the highest chance of having a gene mutation.  If all family members that have had cancer have passed away, genetic testing can be started in a person without cancer first. 

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