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What you need to know about hereditary cancers

DNA illustrationUp to 10 percent of cancers result from a genetic mutation that is inherited from a parent.

Since half of our genes come from our mother and half from our father, the cancer history from each side of our families is equally important.

Gloria Morris, MD, PhD

Gloria Morris, MD, PhD

Gloria Morris, MD, PhD, explains that while some chromosomal disorders appear only in children who receive copies from both parents, “the genetic components of cancer mutations can be so strong that it only takes one copy from one parent to actually raise the risk of cancer in an adult child.”

Morris is an Upstate cancer doctor who specializes in genetics.

She can tell whether someone is at an increased risk for developing certain types of cancers, based on their personal and family history of cancer (see “7 red flags,” below) and a blood or saliva test.

Should you seek answers?

Cancers that are most often hereditary include some types of breast, ovarian, kidney and colon cancers. Having one of these particular cancers in your family may raise your risk for other types of cancers.

“We want to make sure that the adult we are counseling is really able to grasp the intensity and gravity of what a positive result might mean for them,” she says.

“The more that we‘ve learned about these genes, the more we can appreciate how even a mutation in a certain location of a breast cancer gene might also have the potential to cause an increased risk of ovarian cancer or other cancers over one's lifetime.

“So we actually have to keep in mind the genetics of not only specific types of tumors but also where they might overlap and show up in the family,” Morris says.

Should you seek genetic testing?

Maybe, if:

* you have a personal or family history that suggests an inherited cancer risk, (see “7 red flags,” below), or if your maternal and/or paternal history is unknown,

* the test results will be able to tell whether a specific genetic change is present or absent,

* the results will provide information that can help guide your future medical care, and

* you have spoken with a doctor, nurse, genetic counselor or other professional trained in genetics, so you understand the risks, benefits and limitations of testing. You may learn that testing is not needed.

Source: National Cancer Institute

7 red flags

Features of your personal or family medical history that, particularly in combination, may suggest a hereditary cancer syndrome include:

* cancer diagnosed at an unusually young age (under age 50).

* several close blood relatives that have the same type of cancer; for example, a mother, daughter and sisters with breast cancer.

* unusual cases of a specific cancer type, such as breast cancer in a man.

* several different types of cancer that have occurred independently in the same person.

* cancer that has developed in both organs in a set of paired organs, such as both kidneys or both breasts.

* the presence of certain birth defects known to be associated with inherited cancer syndromes.

* being a member of certain racial or ethnic groups known to have an increased risk of certain hereditary cancer syndromes.

Source: National Cancer Institute

How to make an appointment

People 21 and older can seek cancer risk assessment through the Upstate Cancer Center. Call 315-464-3510 for appointments.

Cancer Care magazine summer 2017 coverThis article appears in the summer 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine. To hear Morris discuss genetics and cancer in a "HealthLink on Air" interview, click here.