Cancer: What a Family History Means for You

By Cindy Snyder, DNP, APNG, FNP-C
Advanced Practice Nurse in Genetics

Although it’s important to know your family history when it comes to cancer, it’s also important to know that the causes of cancer are multifaceted.  A family history of cancer doesn’t mean that you will get cancer. However, what you do or don’t do can increase your risk for cancer. Here are three areas which can affect your risk of getting cancer:

  • Family history and genetics
  • Health habits and conditions such as obesity, exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress levels
  • Environment, where you live and work

When it comes to keeping track of your family’s health history, you should note any changes year-to-year and update your healthcare provider. While having one relative with cancer may not raise your risk much, having a pattern of family cancers increases your risk more. Say, Aunt Mary develops ovarian cancer. Even if you’re male, be sure to let your healthcare provider know about that change.

When you come for hereditary cancer risk assessment  and genetic testing at GMC, to assess how much risk you have, we look at who in your family has had cancer.

Cancer among your first degree relatives (parents, siblings and children) is of most concern.

Second degree relatives (grandparents, aunts and uncles) and third degree relatives 
(cousins, great aunts and great uncles) may also increase your risk.

Even if you’re not receiving genetic testing and counseling, the health history of all these relatives should be provided to your healthcare provider, and kept updated on an annual basis.

In addition to tracking your family’s history, genetic testing can reveal genetic mutations that may provide useful information. Certain gene mutations can contribute to having a higher risk for different kinds of cancers. Mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, for instance, contribute to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and can increase the risk of prostate cancer. Ovarian and colon cancer can also have a mutated gene in common, as do colon and uterine cancer.

The Bottom Line

To minimize your risk of cancer, follow good health guidelines (below). Make sure your healthcare provider knows your complete family health history. Ask what screenings you should have and when, and follow through on completing them. Remember, early detection is your best chance of fighting cancer, regardless of family history.

Preventing Cancer

Currently research suggests the best ways to lower your risk of developing cancer include:
·         Do not smoke
·         Eat more fruits and vegetables
·         Eat less red meat and processed foods
·         Exercise at least four hours per week
·         Drink no more than one alcoholic drink per day
·         Keep your weight in a normal range, with a body mass index below 25

How GMC Can Help: Genetic Testing

To learn more about genetic counseling and testing for hereditary cancer at Gwinnett Medical Center, call 678-312-3235. To read more about cancer treatment, resources and support services, visit


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