Understanding family cancer syndromes
Few, if any, families have
not been affected by
cancer. No individual
or family is immune to
cancer, but some families may
be more at risk of developing
certain types of cancer than others
.In many instances, cancers
that run in families can be
linked to behaviors that families
share. For example, families that
smoke tobacco may be more vulnerable
to cancer than those
that don’t, as the smoke from
tobacco is known to contain
dozens of carcinogens. Cancer
can affect multiple generations,
even in families in which only
one person smokes, as exposure
to secondhand smoke also
increases cancer risk.
But poor behaviors or the
effects of those behaviors are not
the only cancer risk factors that
can be passed down from generation
to generation. According
to the American Cancer Society,
between five and 10 percent of
all cancers result directly from
gene mutations inherited from
a parent. When cancers within
a family are strongly linked to
such mutations, this is known
as family cancer syndrome.
Cancer is not necessarily
caused by a family cancer syndrome,
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even if gene mutations
are inherited. But
the following factors
may make it more
likely that cancers in
a family are caused by a
family cancer syndrome:
• Many cases of the
same type of cancer,
especially if the cancer
uncommon or rare.
• Cancers that
occur at an abnormally
young age within
a family compared to
the median age such cancers are
typically diagnosed among the
• More than one type of cancer
in a single person.
• Cancers that occur in both
of a pair of organs, such as in
both kidneys, both breasts, or
• More than one childhood
cancer in siblings.
• Cancer that occurs in a
sex that is not usually affected
by that type of cancer, such
as a man being diagnosed with
Before discussing the potential
Such instances are rare, but an elevated risk for certain types of cancer can be passed
down from generation to generation.
of a family cancer syndrome
with their physicians, men and
women can survey their family
histories with the disease. Adults
can make a list of the people in
their families who have been
diagnosed with cancer, noting
their relationship to each individual
and which side of the
family each person is on. List the
type of cancers each person was
diagnosed with, placing an asterisk
or note next to types that are
considered rare or unusual. In
addition, list the age of diagnosis
for each family member and
whether or not they developed
more than one type of cancer.
This may be difficult to determine,
but try to learn if each
relative diagnosed with cancer
made any lifestyle choices that
might have contributed to their
diagnosis. Such choices include
smoking, alcohol consumption,
diet, and activity level.
Family cancer syndromes are
rare, but understanding them
can still help families make the
right lifestyle choices. More
information about family cancer
syndromes is available at www.
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