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Hereditary Cancer: Are You at Risk?

October 17, 2012

When a family member is diagnosed with cancer, it is understandable to have fears about whether you might also be at risk for that same cancer. The reality is that while a lot of cancers occur by chance, some cancers are indeed more common in certain families or groups of people.

What should you do if you suspect you may be at risk?

If your family tree is full of people who have been diagnosed with one or a few types of cancer, you can ask your doctor to refer you to a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors are people who are trained to identify familial syndromes and test for genetic disorders.

Ten percent of the women with ovarian cancer have a genetic disorder that puts them at risk for their cancer.  The other 90 percent of ovarian cancers occur sporadically. The three most common genetic disorders associated with ovarian cancer are two breast/ovarian cancer gene mutations called BRCA 1 and BRCA2. The third is the lynch syndrome, also called HNPCC (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer). Other less common disorders include Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and Cowden’s disease.

  • BRCA1 –risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • BRCA2—risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • HNPCC—risk of colon, uterine, ovarian cancer.

What can you do if you or someone in your family tested positive for a genetic mutation?

Your doctor may have additional tests they might want to do for you. Women may be presented with the offer of tube, ovary, or uterus removal. The intent of these surgeries is to remove the cancer prophylactically, or before it develops. Not everybody who has a genetic disorder may want to have prophylactic surgery, though it is an important option to consider. I usually make sure that my patients understand thoroughly the pros and cons to help them arrive at a decision that is best for them as individuals.

What are the benefits of prophylactic surgery?

For someone who has a genetic disorder such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, prophylactic surgery reduces the chance of ovarian cancer by 80-90 percent, and breast cancer by 50-60%.