She has her mother’s eyes, but does she also have her mother’s genetic cancer risk? Movie star Angelina Jolie’s recent surprising response to that question focused global attention on genetics and cancer. In the wake of her poignant disclosure in a New York Times column, millions of women are asking themselves what they should know, and then, what they should do about cancer risks revealed in genetic information.
Only 5 to 10 percent of cancer cases are related to genes, but when a certain kind of cancer “runs in the family,” it can be helpful to know if there is a clear hereditary link.
Cancer develops when gene mutations cause the body to grow tumors instead of healthy cells. Because the genes you inherit influence the way your body grows and ages, they can contribute to your risk of developing cancer.
While your genes offer clues to cancer risk, they do not solve the entire mystery. Genes are simply a risk factor, like smoking or being overweight, and cannot determine with certainty that you will or will not develop cancer. At least one third of cancers are related to lifestyle choices like activity level and diet.
Still, knowing risk factors, including information about your genes and family history, can help you make informed decisions about your health. Certain cancers are more likely than others to be related to genes. For example, prostate cancer risk is related to genes, as are colon and endometrial (or uterine) cancer.
Breast cancer is the most notable example, with BRCA-1, BRCA-2 and similar genes playing a role in breast and ovarian cancer risks. Indeed, in Jolie’s case, she chose to have a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer after genetic testing showed that she carried the BRCA-1 gene.
Despite Jolie’s “celebrity endorsement” for preventative surgery, individuals should evaluate their personal circumstances and full range of options to make such important health decisions.
The American Cancer Society advises that not every person with a family history of cancer needs to have genetic testing or preventative surgery. But if you are interested in finding out your risk, Texas Oncology’s Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing program can work with you to discuss your family history, conduct testing and explain options as well as the risks and benefits.
If you think you may be interested in knowing what your genes have to say about your cancer risk, ask yourself these questions first:
- Does a certain kind of cancer “run in the family”?
- Will knowing about my genes change how I live my life or make choices?
- Could this knowledge help others?
- Am I prepared to know the results either way?
- Will the uncertainty of not knowing bother me?
The decision to undergo genetic risk evaluation and testing is ultimately a personal one and results are completely confidential. Genetic educators are equipped to fully explain test results and help you determine next steps.
Regardless of what information your genes hold, it is important to be mindful of the known cancer risks you can control by living a healthy, active lifestyle – that means quitting smoking, maintaining a regular exercise program and managing proper weight through a nutritious and balanced diet.
By Suresh Ratnam, M.D., Texas Oncology-McAllen