Are There Cancer Clues in Your Family Tree?

The impacts of lifestyle choices on cancer risk are familiar to many people. But our genetic makeups are all our own.

“If any of your close relatives has cancer, it can raise your chances of developing the disease,” says Heather Hampel, MS, LGC, associate director of the Division of Human Genetics at the OSUCCC – James.

Seeking out your family’s cancer history can let you know if some extra steps—like genetic testing and/or earlier or more frequent cancer screening—may lead to lifesaving intervention. Here are four things that can help you make sure you’re getting the right details.

1. Recognize the red flags of hereditary cancer risk

Most people, unfortunately, have at least one relative who has or had cancer, but the details may indicate an increased risk for the whole family, according to Hampel. “If you have a family history of early-onset cancer (diagnosed before age 50), relatives with more than one cancer (not counting metastases), or three relatives on the same side of your family with the same or related cancers (breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreas or colon, uterine, ovarian, and stomach), you should consider having a cancer genetics evaluation to determine whether your family might have a hereditary cancer susceptibility.”

2. Even “minor” genes can cause major issues

When it comes to cancer, any rise in risk is well worth identifying. Make sure you don’t disregard cases in your family even if they seem less likely to be strongly hereditary based on the red flags listed above. “There may be minor genes shared in families that slightly increase cancer risks when combined with shared environmental risk factors—living in the same places, eating similar diets, having similar lifestyles.

3. Details, details, details!

Every bit of knowledge can be important in determining if you can follow the general population cancer screening and prevention guidelines, or if you might need a little bit extra. Make sure to ask your relatives for any details they can remember, no matter how small. “Some people need to start their cancer screening tests earlier and/or repeat them more frequently based on their family history of cancer,” Hampel says.

4. Start the conversation

Even among relatives, cancer can be a sad and scary subject. Strongly consider taking on the role of discussion starter via phone, email, social media or in person—holiday gatherings can be great opportunities—to make sure vital health information isn’t left unshared. A little conversation now can lead to a happier and healthier family for generations to come.

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