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How to Know If Cancer Runs in the Family

Visiting Senior Patients

Are you wondering if cancer runs in your family? The Family Cancer Assessment Clinic (FCAC) at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is here to help with answers to some frequently asked questions. The FCAC identifies and helps families who have an increased risk for cancer.

How do I know if cancer runs in my family?
Families that have increased risks for cancer often have certain similarities:

  • Cancer occurring at an earlier age than in the general population (for example, breast or colon cancer before age 50)
  • Multiple close family members with either the same type of cancer or related cancers (for example, breast and ovarian cancer; colon and uterine cancer)
  • More than one type of cancer in the same person (for example, melanoma and pancreatic cancer)
  • A close family member with multiple primary cancers of one type, such as bilateral breast cancer (breast cancer occurring in both breasts) or a single family member with two separate melanomas
  • Rare cancers in the family
  • Multiple generations with cancer
  • One or more family members with multiple precancerous findings (for example, 10 or more colon polyps over a lifetime)
  • Individuals or families with these features may consider having a genetic evaluation to learn more about their cancer risk. To learn about a genetic evaluation, contact the FCAC.

What is the Family Cancer Assessment Clinic?

Before an appointment with the FCAC, you will be asked to complete a questionnaire with information about your personal health history and a detailed questionnaire about your family history.

During an appointment, you will meet with a genetic counselor. The genetic counselor will review the patient's personal and family history to determine whether the family could have a hereditary risk for cancer. They will discuss available genetic testing options, including the risks and benefits of genetic testing.

If you decide to pursue genetic testing, the genetic counselor can guide you through the process. Counselors will discuss how hereditary cancer risks can be managed through screening and preventive options. Usually, an HCI physician will be available to answer additional questions. Our genetic counselors can also provide you with helpful educational and support resources as well as information about the opportunity to participate in research.

What is genetic testing?

Genes are the parts of cells that hold the instructions for the body to function properly. Genetic testing looks for changes in genes (called mutations) that increase the risk of developing cancer. These mutations can be passed down through families, making some family members more likely to develop cancer than people in the general population.

What does genetic testing involve?

The test usually requires a small blood sample. Sometimes other specimens, such as cells from a cheek swab, can be used. The sample is sent to a laboratory for analysis. Results come back to the FCAC and will be shared with the patient, along with any additional management and follow-up recommendations.

Is genetic testing recommended for everyone?

Genetic testing is available to everyone, but it is not always recommended. A genetic counselor and physician are available to talk with a patient about the benefits and limitations of genetic testing based on personal and family history. Ultimately each person has the final decision about whether to proceed with testing.

For more information, contact the FCAC or call the Cancer Learning Center at 1-888-424-2100.