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If My Parent Had Cancer, Am I at a Higher Risk?

Cancer is an all-too-common disease, and you likely know someone who has had it. When one of your parents has cancer, it raises a different set of concerns. Many individuals fear that their risk of cancer is higher, as well.

However, according to the American Cancer Society, most cancers are not passed down through families. The number of inherited cancer cases is only about 5 to 10%.

The story is a little different if your parents had breast cancer or another hereditary cancer, says Alejandra T. Perez, M.D., director of the Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Plantation.

“The risk is different for each type of cancer and whether a genetic mutation is present or not,” she says. “For example, having a first-degree relative with breast cancer almost doubles a woman’s risk. Having two first-degree relatives increases the risk about threefold. If a genetic mutation like BRCA is present, the risk can go as high as 80%.”

What is BRCA?

The National Cancer Institute says that BRCA stands for “breast cancer gene,” and there are two types: BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.

These genes can be passed along from parents to their children and can increase the child’s risk of a few types of cancers later in life, most notably breast cancer.

While breast cancer is the most significant risk related to the BRCA gene mutations, they also raise the risks of ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer.

How do you know if you are at risk?

Dr. Perez advocates for risk assessment and possible genetic testing for patients with a family history of cancer, particularly in the cases of breast, ovarian, prostate, or colon cancer.

“When we have a family history of cancer present, it is important to have a risk assessment done by your physician, genetic counselor, or a high-risk program like the CARE (Cancer Assessment Risk Evaluation) clinic at our institution,” she says. “We need to know if genetic testing is needed, as the risk changes when a pathogenic variant is present.”

There are other ways that people whose parents had cancer can protect themselves.

Most of these suggestions apply to everyone, but those with a family history of cancer may have more stringent screening guidelines.

Follow your doctor’s screening suggestions.

Cancer screening is recommended for most individuals at a certain age, but Dr. Perez says you may have to screen earlier or more frequently if one of your parents was diagnosed with a certain form of cancer.

“Patients with a strong family history of breast cancer will have a yearly mammogram, and some of them need to add an MRI of the breast every year,” she says. “Patients with a strong family history of colon cancer may need to do a screening colonoscopy more often.”

Watch for signs and symptoms.

The challenge is other medical conditions also cause many signs and symptoms of cancer. The American Cancer Society says if you have symptoms that aren’t going away, are getting worse, or cannot be explained by other medical conditions, they are potential signs of cancer.

The list of possible symptoms is quite long. It includes unexplained weight loss, fatigue, swelling or lumps, pain, skin changes, coughing or hoarseness, change in bladder or bowel habits, unusual bleeding, and more.

Live a healthy lifestyle.

Many lifestyle factors that can lower your risk of other chronic diseases can also help prevent cancer, says the American Cancer Society.

Maintaining a focus on a healthy weight, nutritious diet, and plenty of exercise is essential for those whose parents had cancer, but for everyone.

Avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol consumption are strong steps toward reducing cancer risk as much as possible. While experts encourage abstaining from alcohol, drinking shouldn’t exceed more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.

Find out if you are at high risk for cancer.