How Family History 'Really' Affects Your Cancer Risk

Written By:Stacy Simon

Almost everyone knows someone who has had cancer. It may even seem to run in some families. However, most cancer is not inherited. Check your knowledge about these other common myths about cancer and family history:

3 myths

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 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 of cancer include smoking, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of exercise. All of these behaviors can be changed to help reduce the risk of cancer.

In other cases, cancer can be caused by an abnormal gene that is passed down through generations. In those cases, what is inherited is not the cancer itself, but the abnormal gene that may – or may not – lead to cancer.

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

Reality: Screening can prevent some types of cancer from ever occurring, or detect them early when they’re 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 risk by avoiding tobacco; staying at a healthy weight; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and getting enough exercise.

3 Tips

Tip: This Thanksgiving, make it a point to discuss health information with the family. Discuss family members’ health history, including any changes. If a health problem runs in your family, you may be able to take steps to reduce your risk. You can’t change your genes, but you can change behaviors that affect your health.

Tip: Tell your health care provider when someone in your family has been diagnosed with cancer, even if they don’t ask. Providers often ask for a family cancer history the first time you visit, but don’t always continue to ask whether anything has changed.

Tip: If you have a strong family history of cancer and want to learn your genetic makeup, ask your health care provider to refer you to a genetic counselor first to find out if genetic testing might be right for you.

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.

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