Are Genetics Raising Your Risk of Inherited Cancer?

by Christel Hayes, FNP-C, McLeod Oncology and Hematology Associates
Christel Hayes, FNP-C, McLeod Oncology and Hematology Associates Christel Hayes, FNP-C, McLeod Oncology and Hematology Associates

The body is made up of trillions of cells, which contain genes. Genes are the basic physical unit of inheritance that is passed from parents to offspring. These small segments of DNA determine specific human characteristics, such as hair color, blood type, height, and risk for developing certain diseases. An individual can have changes or mutations in the genes that provide the wrong set of instructions, leading to faulty function, or abnormal cell growth.

However, since we have two copies of every gene, typically the other copy is still functioning normally. A person can be born with gene mutations, or they can happen over a lifetime. Mutations can occur when cells are aging or after exposure to certain chemicals or radiation. Fortunately, cells usually recognize these types of mutations and repair them. Other times, however, they can cause disease, such as cancer.

All cancers have one common element. They result from harmful changes in your genes. These gene changes can be caused by lifestyle habits or exposure to environmental cancer-causing agents, such as harmful chemicals. But some mutations are changes that have been passed down from generation to generation. We refer to these as “inherited mutations.”

A person with a hereditary cancer risk has genes that make them more susceptible to cancer than someone in the general population. The medical management for a person in the general population would be different than a person, who is at high risk. These individuals need greater surveillance, have family considerations that should be discussed, and possibly, have surgeries or medications to help decrease their cancer risk.

A risk factor is anything that increases the chances of developing a disease. Some of the factors associated with an increased cancer risk include lifestyle, age, family history, gender, and inherited gene changes. In my role with the McLeod Cancer Center, I work in collaboration with clinicians to provide screening, education, and testing to identify inherited gene mutations known to increase the risk of cancer.

Inherited mutations in certain genes increase the risk of cancer. Predictive genetic testing can be performed to look for inherited gene mutations. Genetic counseling and testing may be recommended for individuals with a personal or family history of certain cancers, due to the increased risk of having an inherited gene mutation.

You should consider genetic testing for hereditary cancer if:

There is a personal or family history of a rare cancer (e.g., male breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, metastatic prostate cancer)

There are many relatives on one side of the family who have had the same or associated cancer

A relative who has tested positive for a genetic mutation

A family member with more than one type of cancer, or two separate cancers in the same organ

Family members who had cancer at a young age, or cancer diagnosed prior to the age of 50

Ashkenazi Jewish Ancestry 9 (known to be linked to ovarian and breast cancers)

A personal history of 10 or more colorectal polyps

Genetic testing involves a sample of saliva or blood that is sent to a genetics lab for analysis. The lab results are then compared with the patient’s DNA to determine whether they have any of the cancer-causing genes. More than 90 percent of the insurance companies currently cover hereditary cancer panel testing.

At McLeod Oncology and Hematology Associates, we offer pre-test counseling about genetics, obtain a collection of your family history and determine if you are suitable for genetic testing. For more information, please call (843) 777-5951.

Christel Hayes, FNP-C, cares for the genetic needs of patients at the McLeod Center for Cancer Treatment and Research. Hayes recently moved to South Carolina from Indiana where she was the Breast Surgical Oncology Nurse Practitioner for Lutheran Surgical Specialists. She completed an Associate of Applied Science in Nursing at Purdue University and obtained her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Nursing from Indiana Wesleyan University.