I’m sure you’ve heard in the news about Angelina Jolie and other superstars who did something about their cancer risk. Don’t be alarmed by this media hype. You have more than a 95% chance you don’t need the hereditary cancer screens that she did which prompted her to have her surgeries (removal of her breasts).
Hereditary cancers are exactly as the name implies: cancers that tend to occur within families. Specifically, those cancers that seem to occur generation after generation and are caused by a genetic mutation that occurred at some time long ago in the family lineage. Examples of these are BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, but there are many others which are even rarer.
Those who are in the few percentage points high risk arena potentially face an ominous future of cancer. You may have cancer in your family but do you have a risk of having one of these “hereditary” cancers caused by a mutation in your family genes?
The first step in finding out if you have one of these problems is to evaluate your family history. If you don’t belong to one or more of the following categories, you should not worry about it. If you do, consider doing screening tests. You should have screening tests performed if you have:
- Two or more first-degree relative (i.e. mother or sister) or second-degree relative (grandmother or aunt) diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 50.
- Three or more of these relatives diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
- One or more such relatives diagnosed with ovarian cancer before the age of 45.
- If any of these relatives had both breast cancer and ovarian cancer
- If a male relative had breast cancer
- If two or more relatives had a history of multiple (>10) colon polyps on colonoscopy, or colon cancer associated with other cancers.
- If two or more first- or second-degree relatives had colorectal or endometrial cancer before age 50.
- If you have many relatives with other cancers, such as gastric, prostate, pancreatic cancers and/or melanomas.
- If you’re ancestry is Ashkenazi Jew
Hereditary cancer syndromes such as BRCA and Lynch syndrome are relatively rare. However, if your family fits into any of the above categories, you should consider genetic testing because treatments can be done to help decrease your risk of developing these deadly cancers. These treatments could include prophylactic removal of either your breast internal tissues; your ovaries, tubes and uterus; or parts of your colon, depending on the type of genetic mutation present.
The following chart can help you see how effective these medical management options can be:
A hereditary cancer screen should not be performed on everyone since >95% of the population will show normal results. However, if one or more of the above situations ring home, you may want to consider doing these simple blood tests. However, there are limitations to doing them and interpreting their results. If positive, you may have problems getting medical or life insurance in the future, so make sure you plan these appropriately and timely.
If you have concerns regarding your risk, talk with your doctor or a certified genetic counselor for more advice and information.