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Assessing Your Risk for Hereditary Canc

What is Hereditary Cancer?

Sometimes, we see a specific pattern of cancer in the family called a cancer syndrome. A cancer syndrome refers to a cluster of specific cancers that occurs more often than expected by chance alone in a particular family.

To determine if a family may have a hereditary cancer syndrome, a detailed family history of cancer needs to be collected and organized. With this information, an assessment can be performed to determine the likelihood that the family has a hereditary cancer syndrome or if the family history of cancer is more likely due to chance.

Assessing Your Risk for Hereditary Cancer

Your family may have a hereditary cancer syndrome if your family history has some of these features:

  • Early onset diagnosis at an age younger than typically seen (e.g. breast cancer in 20s, 30s, 40s)
  • Multiple primary tumors (e.g. bilateral breast cancer)
  • Multiple generations affected with the same or related cancers
  • Early onset of colon polyps, colon cancer or multiple family members with colon polyps
  • Ethnicity (e.g. being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent and having breast or ovarian cancer)
  • Being diagnosed with male breast cancer
  • A constellation of tumors consistent with a specific cancer syndrome such as breast and ovarian; colon and endometrial; sarcoma, breast, brain and adrenal cortical carcinoma (ACC)

Collecting Your Family’s Medical History

A family history of cancer can provide clues to your risks for cancer. In collecting your family history, you may find you are at an increased risk for certain cancers and you may also find you are at average, or even below average, risk for other types of cancer.
It may be helpful to let your relatives know why you are asking about their health and to explain the entire family could benefit from this information. Learning more about your relatives who have had cancer is also an important step in determining your own risk so that appropriate screening and prevention techniques can be accurately identified.

Getting Started

At Pennsylvania Hospital, we provide you with a questionnaire that helps guide you in collecting your family history. However, if you’d like to start thinking about this on your own, begin with a review of your own family by learning the names, approximate dates of birth and current age or age at death for your immediate and extended family, including:

  • Your parents, siblings, and children
  • Your aunts, uncles, and cousins
  • Your grandparents and their siblings
  • Your great-grandparents

Get as much information as you can on each relative but don’t get discouraged if you can’t get all the information, realizing that especially with distant relatives, it can be difficult to obtain this information.

Important Questions

For people who have had cancer:

  • Where in the body did the cancer start?
  • Was there more than one type of cancer?
  • At what age was the cancer(s) diagnosed?
  • What type of treatment did this family member have?
  • What is the pathology, or specific type, of the cancer?

General information in the family:

  • Has anyone had a history of chronic illness?
  • If so, what is the illness? What are the symptoms and treatment?
  • What were the causes and ages of death for deceased relatives?
  • Where did your ancestors live before coming to the United States?

Sources of Information

Many people find it difficult to learn about more distant relatives and older generations. Some possible sources of information are:

  • Death certificates
  • Federal census records
  • Military service or pension records
  • Cemetery or funeral home records
  • Hospital records (especially pathology reports)
  • Diaries, family bibles, photographs

If anyone in your family has started researching the genealogy of your family, save yourself some time and find out what they’ve learned.


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