Does Cancer Run in Your Family?

I hate to say it, but there’s rot in my family tree. Generation after generation, people are dying of breast and ovarian cancer. A lot of good people died too soon. After a while, it becomes obvious that this can’t be a coincidence.

Past generations had to fly blind, which is part of the reason why life expectancies were so low back then. But current ones fly blind only by choice. Science has now identified at least a dozen possible genetic anomalies that lead to hereditary cancer. And there are many types of potentially hereditary cancer: breast, ovarian, gastric, colorectal, pancreatic, melanoma, prostate, and uterine cancers all can be caused by faulty genes.

There are three categories of cancer. Most cancer is not hereditary. It occurs by chance. This is called Sporadic Cancer, and happens at random, with no strong familial history. It is often triggered by lifestyle choices such as smoking or not taking birth control. The second category is Familial Cancer, which is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but there’s no indication of a specific pattern of inheritance.

The third category of cancer is the scariest one. It’s Hereditary Cancer, and it occurs when an altered gene is passed down in the family from parent to child. Genes don’t care about your lifestyle. They don’t care if you don’t smoke and don’t drink and don’t ovulate and maintain a healthy weight. They don’t care if you’re a vegan and live in a pristine environment. Mutated genes will do their thing simply because they’re there. They are ticking time bombs inside your body.

That means that if you have an anomaly like the BRCA1/2 gene that runs in my family, you have a shockingly increased risk of various types of cancer than the general population. In this case, you have 87% higher risk of Breast Cancer, 63% higher risk of Ovarian cancer, 36% higher risk of Pancreatic cancer, and a 20% higher risk of Prostate cancer.

Yes, that’s a lot to take in. Yes, it’s frightening. But the good news is you get 50% of your genes from each parent. That means that just because a certain type of cancer runs in your family, you don’t necessarily have the genetic anomaly that causes it.

The only way to find out is by seeing a genetic counselor and getting tested. You can find one near you by visiting this website. If you can show a family history, and you have any health insurance at all, odds are very good that you won’t have to pay a penny out of pocket for this test. You visit the counselor, establish your history, give a blood sample, and go back for one more visit for the results. Simple.

If you test negative, you have the distinct pleasure (like me! Yay!) of having a lower cancer risk than even the general population. Wouldn’t that be a weight off your shoulders? (Believe me, it’s like getting an out of jail free card.)

If you test positive, you’ve still done something good for yourself. Now you have the knowledge and you can take steps to reduce your risk. For example, learn the signs of the cancer in question, so that you can catch it in its early stages, so you have a much greater chance of surviving. Increase your surveillance through more frequent or more detailed periodic testing. In some cases there are medications that you can take to reduce your risk.

Or you can talk to your doctor about risk reducing surgery. Some of my family members have chosen to have hysterectomies and mastectomies. I genuinely believe that’s why they are still with us today.

The frustrating thing is that many family members are not arming themselves with this knowledge. In our case, a lot of the men aren’t being tested. But there is even one man in the family tree who very likely died of breast cancer. While this is rare, when men do get it, they’re much more apt to die from it because they’re not doing breast exams, so they catch it late. It’s nothing to play with. The BRCA1/2 gene also can cause pancreatic and prostate cancer. And even if you’re lucky enough to avoid the cancers but carry the genes, there’s still a 50/50 chance you’ll pass these nightmarish genes down to your children.

So if there’s any type of cancer popping up in your family tree, I can’t emphasize this enough. Get tested. Encourage your siblings and cousins to get tested. Share genealogical information with one another. Share this post.

Do it for the people who love you and whom you love. Because there’s nothing so horrible and unnecessary as dying from something that you could have prevented.

Knowledge. Is. Power.

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