Is Cancer Hereditary? What You Need To Know

March 8, 2019
Although many people ask the question,

This is a question that the vast majority of the population has had at some point: is cancer hereditary? If my mother suffered from breast cancer, for example, will I get it too?

First of all, we should clarify that cancer definitely has a genetic component. But just because it has a genetic component, doesn’t mean that it is “hereditary.”

Currently, this disease is so common that most of us almost certainly have a relative who is suffering from it. Or perhaps someone in your life has gone through the toughest test and, sadly, not been able to overcome it.

But as some experts have said, there are certain types of cancer that seem to be more common within some families.

Obesity across many generations or the use of tobacco products are factors that can determine your potential risk.

On the other hand, we also know that there are different types of cancer that are more likely to be inherited through your family tree.

Still, we should emphasize once again the idea we stated above: we’re dealing with a disease that has a genetic component, but it’s not necessarily hereditary.

Today we’ll give you all the information you need on the subject.

Cancer and genetic inheritance

The Cancer Research Center at the University of Salamanca (Spain) published a report in 2010 titled “Genetic Counseling: A Guide to Preventing Hereditary Cancer.”

The report attempted to discern whether or not a genetic analysis could determine if a person is a carrier of a DNA sequence that could make them more “susceptible” to developing cancer.

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Generally, the probability that you’ll inherit certain oncological diseases from your family is between 5 and 10%. These cancers usually have no known environmental factors.

Three generations of women

Cancer occurs due to a complex combination of factors

Cancer is a genetic disease. It originates in certain genes, whether it’s caused by internal or external factors, and those genes alter and mutate until the cells proliferate.

  • These genetic variations can be exacerbated by things that are associated with your lifestyle. The environment in which you live every day can also be a trigger.
  • At the same time, it’s most commonly a subtle combination of everything. But the likelihood of developing a tumor solely due to hereditary factors is very low.
  • Tobacco use, environmental pollutants and poor dietary habits pose a greater danger.

When can you determine that you have a hereditary predisposition to get cancer?

Because the onset of cancer is usually due to a combination of various factors, it’s important to consider several aspects.

We’ll explain them below.

  • When the same type of cancer appears among several different family members.
  • When that cancer affects different generations: grandparents, children, grandchildren.
  • If the diagnosis occurs in some family members at a young age (before 60).

Woman holding a rose to her chest.

Cancers with a hereditary component

There are certain types of cancer that have a hereditary component. The risk factor remains at the 5 to 10% threshold.

This isn’t very high, but you need to be extra attentive and inform your doctor so you can get the appropriate evaluations.

  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Non-polycystic colon cancer
  • Melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer)

Is there a test that can determine whether or not you will develop these types of cancer?

There are several tests that can indeed give you some information about your risk. However, we should clarify some key issues first:

  • These genetic tests will not tell you whether or not you’ll develop a hereditary type of cancer – they only tell you how likely it will be.
  • The first thing you should do is talk to your doctor. They will refer you to what’s known as the unit for cancer genetic counseling.
  • Its function is to study hereditary forms of cancer and to counsel you. It’s not only about receiving the result of a laboratory test.
  • It also exists to advise you. Here you will evaluate your personal and family risk. You will also learn what monitoring strategies you should implement and how to reduce your risk.


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We should emphasize again that the risk of developing cancer due to hereditary factors is very low.

But since this is a very common fear among the population, these genetic counseling units have been created to be useful and effective.

Cancer cells

If there is a familial relationship, how can you prevent cancer?

As we said earlier, the most important thing is to receive sound medical advice. If several women in your family have had breast cancer, for example, the most important thing is that you have regular breast exams and mammograms.

At the same time, remember that the genetic component itself is not what usually causes the disease to develop. Cancer usually appears thanks to other factors that increase your risk and susceptibility.

  • It’s important to avoid tobacco use
  • Obesity is another risk factoranother risk factor
  • A diet that’s rich in fat and sugar is another danger you should avoid
  • Don’t lead a sedentary lifestyle
  • Living in an unhealthy environment or working with contaminants or pollutants is another risk

Regardless, there will always be specialists available to tell you what strategies you need to follow in your day-to-day life.

  • A. Antoniou, P. D. Pharoah, S. Narod et al., Average risks of breast and ovarian cancer associated with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations detected in case Series unselected for family history: a combined analysis of 22 studies, Am J Hum Genet 72 (2003), 1117–1130.
  • A.C. Antoniou, P.D. Pharoah, G. McMullan et al., A comprehensive model for familial breast cancer incorporating BRCA1, BRCA2 and other genes, Br J Cancer 86 (2002), 76–83.
  • I. Ayan, J.W. Luca, N. Jaffe et al., De novo germline mutations of the p53 gene in young children with sarcomas, Oncology Reports 4 (1997), 679–683.