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Serving the Susquehanna Region

UPMC Expert: Tis the Season to Talk About Family History

by Jennifer McCormick, RN, Cancer Telegenetics, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you see your doctor for an annual checkup, they’ll want to know details not only about you but your family as well — including if your family has a history of cancer. This information can help your doctor paint a clearer picture of health risks due to your family’s health history. The problem is many people aren’t aware of their full family history which can leave you unknowingly at risk. Use this holiday season to have the necessary discussion related to your family’s health.

Genetics and Cancer

Families have many factors in common, including their genes, environment, and lifestyle. Together, these factors can give clues to medical conditions that may run in a family. By noticing patterns of disorders among relatives, health care professionals can determine whether an individual, other family members, or future generations may be at an increased risk of developing a particular condition.

While about 5 to 10% of all cancers are linked to a gene problem that is inherited from your parents, if you have a family member who had or has cancer doesn’t mean you will develop it as well. It does mean that if one or both of your parents had a cancer, the chance of you getting that same type of cancer is increased somewhat compared with another person in the population. For this reason, it’s important to know and disclose your family medical history to your doctor or consider screening for specific conditions.

If you have a family member with cancer, there are many reasons it is beneficial to know your cancer risk: 

  • Understanding the risk of cancer for you or your children. 
  • Discovering if inheritance played a role in the development of your or a family member’s cancer
  • Obtaining information about cancer screening tests, such as mammography or colonoscopy, and about how often the tests should be done.
  • Making decisions about the use of risk-reducing medicines and risk-reducing surgery.
  • Investigating the need for genetic testing.

What Can I Expect at a Cancer Genetics Risk Consultation?

A cancer genetics risk consultation can provide information about your cancer risk, cancer screenings, and genetic testing that you may want to consider based on your personal or family cancer history. Patients who receive a consultation will learn about inherited and environmental factors that may cause cancer in a family or an individual. Patients meet with a geneticist to completely review the family and medical histories with regard to cancer.

During the consultation, you will discuss: 

  • An estimation of your risks for specific cancers based on your age, family history, and other factors.
  • An assessment of your cancer family tree. 
  • The possible role of genetics in your family’s cancer. 
  • Emotional issues surrounding cancer and risk.
  • The availability of genetic testing for certain cancer susceptibilities and the risks, benefits, and limitations of genetic testing.
  • Cancer screening tests and current recommendations for how often you should be screened.

Holiday Conversation Starter

While we may not be able to be physically with our loved ones this holiday season, we can still get together in meaningful ways. Take advantage of this time socially distanced or virtually to talk about family health. You may be surprised by what is shared and it could really benefit you in the long run.

Learn more about the Cancer Telegenetics program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.