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Cancer Genetics

Different Cancers

01/07/1999

Question:

My father and two sisters all had/have a different type of cancer. Father died from a malignant brain tumor at age 70. A sister died from colon cancer at age 69. Another sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at age 66. My mother lived to 92 without any cancer. My brother and I are 60 and 64 respectively and do not have cancer. The cancers in my family seem so different--could there still be a genetic cause?

Answer:

While the cancers in your family are quite different, you were wise to ask about any possible genetic causes. There are several hereditary cancer conditions that increase a family's risk for a variety of seemingly unconnected cancers. For example, we often see colon and uterine cancers in the same family with one hereditary cancer condition and in another we see breast and ovarian cancers in the same family.

There is only one hereditary cancer syndrome that could possibly link the cancers in your family. It is a very rare condition called Muir-Torre Syndrome that leads to both colon and brain cancers, but not multiple myeloma. However, individuals with Muir-Torre syndrome are generally diagnosed with cancer at much younger ages (under age 50)than the cancers in your family and there is usually more than one case of brain and/or colon cancer in the family. As a result, it is extremely unlikely that your family has Muir-Torre syndrome and we would suspect that your family history involves a chance clustering of cancers and not a hereditary cancer condition. A detailed family history involving three generations is necessary to definitively estimate your family's risk.

Since your sister has had colon cancer, we would recommend that you and your brother receive colorectal cancer screening. The most complete method of colon cancer screening is called a colonoscopy. This involves passing a thin, flexible scope through your colon and removing any growths or polyps that are found in your colon. Specialists called Gastroenterologists perform this screening and usually recommend that it is performed every 3-5 years (more frequently if any polyps are ever found).

Related Resources:

Cancer Genetics: Building and Understanding Your Medical Family History

For more information:

Go to the Cancer Genetics health topic, where you can:

Response by:

Heather L Hampel, MS, CGC Heather L Hampel, MS, CGC
Cancer Genetic Counselor
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Judith A Westman, MD Judith A Westman, MD
Associate Professor, Clinical Internal Medicine, Pediatrics and Medical Biochemistry
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University