She has 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 Jolie’s 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 inherited or caused by gene changes that run in a family. If a certain kind of cancer appears to “run in the family,” it can be helpful to know whether there is a clear hereditary link.
Cancer develops when gene mutations cause the body to grow tumors instead of healthy cells. Since genes you inherit influence the way your body grows and ages, they can contribute to your risk of developing cancer.
Although 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 such as 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. Cancer is more likely to be inherited if there are multiple family members with the same type of cancer, cancer diagnosed at age 50 years or younger, cancer in paired organs (both breasts, both ovaries), or if a person develops multiple types of cancers. There are many types of cancers that can be related to genes, such as ovarian, colon, and endometrial cancer.
Breast cancer is the most notable example, with BRCA1, BRCA2, 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 BRCA1 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 (TexasOncology.com) can work with you to discuss your family history, conduct testing, and explain options, as well as the risks and benefits.
The decision to undergo genetic risk evaluation and testing ultimately is a personal one, and results are completely confidential. Genetic educators are trained to assess your family history to determine whether genetic testing is appropriate, and are fully equipped to 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.
And, since Austin is one of the fittest cities in the nation, there are abundant resources available so you can start on a new course right away. Whether you walk, run, or bike around Lady Bird Lake, or enjoy the many trails around town, you can start very simply and easily, with lots of motivation from you fellow Austinites out there, too. Be sure to practice sun safety and wear your sunscreen.
If you think you may be interested in knowing what your genes have to say about your cancer risk, ask yourself these questions first:
1. Does a certain kind of cancer “run in the family”?
2. Will knowing about my genes change how I live my life or make choices?
3. Could this knowledge help others?
4. Am I prepared to know the results either way?
5. Will the uncertainty of not knowing bother me?