Cancer risk is made up of a combination of lifestyle factors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, and the genes you inherited from your parents. While you can reduce your cancer risk by changing your lifestyle, you may still face some level of risk due to your genetics.
According to Dr. Mary Daly, who chairs the department of clinical genetics at Fox Chase Cancer Center, a gene that has been inherited from a parent plays a role in approximately 10 to 15 percent of cancers. Knowing your family history can give you some idea of your cancer risk, but you may want to undergo genetic testing to get a more accurate picture of your personal level of risk.
The first step in working out your genetic cancer risk is to speak to both your parents. Talk to your mother about her own health and that of both her parents. You should also talk to your father about his parents. Genes for female-only cancers can be passed on through the paternal line, so it's important to speak to both parents to get a full family history. If two or more of your close relatives have been diagnosed with cancer, then your own genetic cancer risk could be higher than average.
Scientists have identified several genes that are associated with risks of certain types of cancers. Genetic tests that look for mutations in particular genes can identify whether you are at increased risk of developing breast, ovarian or gastrointestinal cancers. Testing positive for these mutations doesn't necessarily mean that you will develop cancer during your lifetime, but your risk is higher than that of the average person.
Two of the most well-known genetic mutations that are associated with cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These mutations can raise the risk of developing breast cancer by up to 65 percent, as well as increasing ovarian cancer risk by 39 percent. Some women, such as Angelina Jolie, choose to have their breasts or ovaries removed after testing positive for a BRCA gene mutation. This surgery dramatically reduces the risk of cancer but has side effects. For example, removing the ovaries results in infertility, which means that some young women carrying a BRCA gene mutation are not ready to take this step.
Other genetic mutations cause more minor increases in cancer risk. People who test positive for these mutations may be advised to attend regular cancer screenings so that cancer can be detected and treated quickly if it occurs.
Understanding your genetic cancer risk is important for protecting your health. By looking into your family history and having genetic testing, you can find out how likely you are to develop cancer due to your genes. This knowledge of your cancer risk allows you to take action to protect yourself, such as attending cancer screenings or having preventative surgery.
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