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Hereditary Cancer: When Should You Be Screened?

Only 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are hereditary, but research reveals that family history can increase your chances of developing cancer. Factors that determine your risk include the type of cancer in your family, how old your relatives were when they were diagnosed, and whether other family members have the same type of cancer. If there is a hereditary form of cancer in your family, you might be at a high risk of developing the same type. 

For example, 13 percent of American women will develop breast cancer at some point, but if a woman has inherited the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, her risk skyrockets to a 7 in 10 chance of getting breast cancer by age 80, according to the American Cancer Society. Not all women inherit these genetic variants. However, if your mother or sister is diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, you may want to find out if family history puts you at greater risk.

Discuss Family History with Your Doctor

If someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer, you should speak with your physician about: 

  • Your family history of cancer

  • Whether the history is concerning for a hereditary form of cancer

  • A cancer screening regimen based on your risk factors and family history

  • Your reproductive history. (Research shows that when a woman has been exposed to more estrogen throughout her life, her breast cancer risk may be increased.)

  • Medications that could reduce your risk of developing cancer

  • Lifestyle changes

When Your Doctor May Advise Genetic Testing

Although having a hereditary form of cancer is rare, you might benefit from genetic testing if you have:

  • A common cancer at a young age (breast or colon cancer under age 50)

  • A rare type of cancer (ovarian, male breast or pancreatic cancer)

  • Multiple relatives on the same side of the family with the same type of cancer

Your doctor may advise you to meet with a genetic counselor to discuss your family history and the benefits and risks of genetic testing. If this happens, stay calm and avoid jumping to early conclusions. A genetic counselor can help you or family members determine the risk of developing cancer. 

Other Ways to Lower Your Cancer Risk

No matter what your family history of cancer is, there are several ways you can lower your cancer risk: 

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Stop smoking

  • Limit your alcohol consumption

  • Get plenty of sleep (7-9 hours a night)

  • Eat a low sugar, anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of fresh vegetables

  • Exercise regularly

  • Closely manage any hormone replacement therapy with a qualified healthcare provider

  • Reduce your exposure to environmental toxins

  • Get regular screenings for breast, cervical, uterine and colon cancer 

  • Know the signs and symptoms of cancer and seek early medical attention 

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