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Explore Your Family Cancer History

family sitting on couch looking at photo album

Almost everyone knows someone who has had cancer. It may even seem to run in some families. Learning about your family’s history of cancer and other chronic diseases including heart disease and diabetes can help you and your doctor take care of your health.

Use family get-togethers such as family reunions or other celebrations as a time to talk about family health information. Discuss family members’ health history, including any changes. If a health problem runs in your family, you may be able to take steps to help reduce your risk. For example, you can improve your eating habits, get more physical activity, and if you smoke, quit.

Share any new information you learn with your doctor and tell your doctor when someone in your family has been diagnosed with cancer, even if they don’t ask. Doctors often ask for a family cancer history the first time you visit, but don’t always continue to ask whether anything has changed. They can help you make healthy behavior changes and recommend cancer screenings that are right for you.

What about genetic testing?

Most cancer is not inherited, and most people don’t need genetic testing. In fact, only about 5% to 10% of all cancers are thought to be related to gene mutations that are passed down through the family. If you do have a strong family history of cancer and want to learn your genetic makeup, ask your doctor to refer you to a genetic counselor first to learn about the benefits and risks of genetic testing.

It’s important to know that having an inherited genetic mutation does not mean you will get cancer. It does put you at a higher risk for developing a certain type or types of cancer. Check your knowledge on these common myths about cancer and family history:

Myth: If cancer runs in my family, I will get it, too.

Reality: Sometimes people in the same family get cancer because they share behaviors that raise their risk, not because they share genes. Behaviors that increase risk include smoking, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of exercise.  In other cases, cancer can be caused by an abnormal gene that is passed down. But what is inherited is not the cancer itself, but the abnormal gene that may – or may not – lead to cancer.

Myth: If no one in my family has cancer, I won’t get it either.

Reality: Most people diagnosed with cancer don’t have a family history of the disease. Only about 5% to 10% of all cases of cancer are inherited.

Myth: If I have a strong family history of cancer, there is nothing I can do to protect myself.

Reality: Screening can help prevent some types of cancer from ever occurring or detect them early when they might be easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about what tests you need and when you should begin getting them. Everybody – no matter their family history – can help lower their cancer risk by avoiding tobacco; staying at a healthy weight; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and getting enough exercise.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.