Are There Cancer Clues in Your Family Tree? Look For These High-Risk Red Flags

Cancer Clues in Family Tree  OSUCCC James

If you’re interested in planning for a healthy future, it’s a good idea to study up on the past.

The impacts of lifestyle choices on cancer risk are familiar to many health-conscious Americans, thanks in large part to the combination of available information and wide-ranging interest. That’s hardly surprising: we all eat, so it makes sense that news about foods that raise or lower our chances of getting cancer will grab our attention.

But while the need for food is shared by everyone, our genetic makeups are all our own, meaning information about the role of heredity in cancer risk isn’t as easily packaged for mass consumption. What that info lacks in marketability, however, it makes up for in importance.

“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 The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

Luckily, your family can provide better information on this front than any website. While it may not be as easy as clicking a link, 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 life-saving intervention.

Here are some quick bits of info that can help you make sure you’re getting the right details about your family’s history of cancer. The answers you get may boost your chances of having the same discussion with your great-grandchildren someday.

Recognize the red flags of hereditary cancer risk

Most people, unfortunately, have at least one relative that 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 or not your family might have a hereditary cancer susceptibility.”

Even “minor” genes can cause major issues

When it comes to cancer, any rise in risk is well worth identifying. So, 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. “If you have close relatives with cancer, you may have a slightly increased risk even if you don’t have a strong hereditary cancer susceptibility,” Hampel says. “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. A genetics evaluation can help provide you with a personalized cancer risk assessment and tailored cancer screening recommendations.”

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. So 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. “For example, someone who has a parent with colorectal cancer at age 55 will need to start having colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer at age 40, and will need to repeat it every five years as compared to someone without any family history who can start at age 50 and repeat the test every 10 years.”

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.

After you talk to your family about their cancer history over the holidays (or if you already know your family cancer history), you can enter the info in our Family HealthLink on-line tool to get a free estimation of your risk of hereditary cancer susceptibility. If the tool finds that you are at high risk, you should make an appointment to see a cancer genetic counselor. You can call the OSUCCC – James Cancer Genetics Program at 614-293-6694 to schedule an appointment. If the tool finds that you are at moderate risk, you should talk to your primary care physician about whether or not you need earlier or more frequent cancer screening tests.