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Cancer Genetics

Strong Family History and Cancer Risks

02/15/2008

Question:

I have lost both my mother and father to different types of cancer. My mother died of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at the age of 49. Her father also died of the same cancer about 4 months before she did. Her mother had breast cancer which was treated when she was in her 50`s but it came back. My father died from pancreatic cancer at age 62. His father died from Liver Cancer. Both of my parents were diagnosed at stage III because neither had any real symptoms. I am 31 years old and I take pretty good care of myself but I don`t know what the likelihood is that I could also develop cancer. Are either of these types seen more in families? It makes me doubt whether or not I would want to have children if this is what I could pass on to them.

Answer:

Your questions and concerns are very good ones; individuals with a family history of cancer have an increased chance to develop those cancers, but in most families, the increase may not be as high as you might think.  Recent studies indicate that the average man or woman has about a 2% chance to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), while someone with parent has about 3.6%.  Your chance may be a little bit higher, since your maternal grandfather also had NHL.  The same general idea also applies to your family history of pancreatic and liver cancer: your chance will be somewhat higher than for someone without a family history, but it is by no means certain that you will develop cancer.  Some of the cancers you mention are found in some of the hereditary cancer susceptibility syndromes, but there is not enough information to give you an accurate estimate about this.

If you wish to have a more accurate evaluation, you should contact a cancer genetic counselor or a medical geneticist for a formal evaluation.  You can find out whether additional screening guidelines would be appropriate for you.  The website for the National Society of Genetic Counselors is listed below.  This is a good place to start. Meeting with a genetic counselor would give you an opportunity to discuss your concerns about having children as well.

Related Resources:

National Society of Genetic Counselors

For more information:

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

Response by:

Duane D Culler, PhD, MS Duane D Culler, PhD, MS
Clinical Instructor of Genetics
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University