Collecting a Family’s Cancer History: What You Should Ask

Learning about cancer diagnoses of extended family — and the details of their conditions — is a conversation everyone should have.

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Author | Michelle Jacobs, M.S., C.G.C.

Talking to your family about hereditary cancer

We get a lot of traits from our parents — height, eye color, perhaps a few personality quirks — but we can also inherit certain health conditions.

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Although the majority of cancers are sporadic, meaning that these illnesses occur because of noninherited factors such as age or environmental risk factors, about 5 to 10 percent of cancers have a hereditary component and run in families.

Which is why, if you have a history of cancer in the family, there are a few keys pieces of information to collect from your first-, second- and third-degree relatives.

The conversation, which could occur around the winter holidays when extended families tend to gather, should include the following questions:

  • Who had cancer?

  • What type of cancer did they have, or in what organ did the cancer originate?

  • How old were they when that cancer was diagnosed? (An approximate age will do if the exact date isn't available.)

  • Did anyone have multiple cancer diagnoses?

  • Has anyone had genetic testing?

Such dialogue can help you identify red flags for inherited cancers.

Among the potential warning signs:

  • Multiple family members being diagnosed with the same or related types of cancers

  • Relatives diagnosed with cancer at a young age (for common cancers such as breast and colon, this typically is considered age 50 or younger; benchmarks vary for other cancer types)

  • Relatives with more than one type of cancer

  • Someone in the family diagnosed with a rare cancer, such as ovarian

Genetic testing and other steps

Even if your family does not meet the red flags listed above, knowing your family history information is important to your health care.

SEE ALSO: How Family Genetic Testing Can Save Lives

A thorough review is key, because noncancerous health issues could be signs of trouble.

Some inherited cancer conditions can manifest as benign tumors. Tumors that can be clues to inherited risk include pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas.

If someone in your family has been diagnosed with many (20 or more) precancerous colon polyps known as adenomas, this also may indicate an inherited cause.

Once you have gathered this information, talk to your doctor about whether it would be beneficial to see a genetic counselor — or you can contact a genetic counselor in your area directly.

If anyone in your family has previously been diagnosed with a genetic condition through genetic testing, a genetic counselor can help order testing for you for the same condition.

If no genetic condition has been identified in the family, a genetic counselor will perform a full personal and family history assessment and discuss what blood-based genetic testing may be appropriate for you or your family.

Counselors also can provide information about additional cancer screenings that may be suitable. You can search for a genetic counselor near you through the National Society of Genetic Counselors, or call 734-763-2532 to make an appointment with the University of Michigan Cancer Genetics Clinic.

Even if you decide not to pursue genetic testing, be sure to share your family's health information with your doctor and ask whether you may qualify for any additional cancer screening based on your family history. Cancer screening saves lives.

More Articles About: Wellness & Prevention Cancer and Genetics Genetic Testing genetic counseling Cancer: Help, Diagnosis & Treatment
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Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

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