Do you know about the link between cancer and genetics? Perhaps you have heard the term “BRCA genes” on the news or read it in health magazines. Perhaps you have heard of women electing to have mastectomies in order to minimize their predisposition to cancer. But what exactly is the link between cancer and genetics?
The answer begins with first understanding what genes themselves are. Genes exist in every cell in your body and serve to tell your body which proteins to make depending on the cell type and its needs. Some genes tell your body how to fix certain damages to your body, such as those due to aging, dietary factors, hormones, etc.
Sometimes genes themselves become damaged, or form mutations. When these mutations occur in the cells that are supposed to fix damages to the body, they can grow without control and cause cancer. For most people diagnosed with cancer, it is the result of a mutation that has developed over time. However, for some, this mutation is inherited from one of their biological parents, making it a hereditary cancer.
Hereditary cancers are estimated to only account for about 10% of all cancers. However, cancer is a fairly common disease, so it is possible for multiple members of a family to be diagnosed with cancer without there being a genetic link.
Hereditary cancer syndrome refers to an inherited gene mutation that increases an individual’s risk for cancer. Two of the major genes causing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Other cancer syndromes include Lynch Syndrome, Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancer, Cowden syndrome, Peutz-Jegher syndrome, and Li-Fraumeni syndrome. The discovery of these genes has led to a new population of cancer “pre-vivors,” or individuals who are taking active measures to help control or reduce their risk of cancer. The three main methods of doing so are:
- Chemoprevention: the use of medication to lower the risk of cancer
- Surveillance: the use of screening tools in order to monitor any changes and catch cancer in its earliest possible stage
- Prophylactic surgery: surgical removal or tissue or organs susceptible to cancer (such as mastectomy or hysterectomy)
Through this increased knowledge about genetic predisposition to cancer, individuals have been able to make empowered decisions for their own treatments. What is right for one person may not be right for someone else, depending on the person’s risk and his or her personal values.