Children's Hospital Colorado

Hereditary Cancer

What is hereditary cancer?

Hereditary cancer is cancer that occurs in a person or family due to an inherited risk factor. In these cases, a person has a change in their genetic material that is either inherited from a parent or new in that person. This change, or mutation, increases their chances of developing certain types of cancer and is found in small pieces of genetic material called genes.

What is cancer?

Our bodies are composed of millions of cells. As a normal process of life, our cells grow, divide and die.

Cancer usually begins with a single healthy cell. Over time, damage may occur and accumulate within a cell. The damage, also called a mutation, may disrupt the cell's control mechanisms, allowing the cell to grow and divide out of control. As this cell divides into many cells, they may form a mass called a tumor. Cancer cells also have the ability to spread throughout the body, or metastasize, which may result in tumor formation in other parts of the body.

What causes hereditary cancer?

Our DNA is the genetic material in every cell that serves as the blueprint for our body development, growth and function. The DNA in our bodies forms approximately 20,000 genes. Our genes come in pairs; one of each gene is inherited from each parent. Mutations that alter the way the genes function to control cell growth and division increase the risk for cancer to develop in people who have inherited them.

Why do some people inherit the risk for cancer?

It is possible that a family may have a single gene mutation that puts certain family members at an increased risk to develop certain types of cancer. While we do not choose which genes we inherit or pass on, the altered gene can be passed from parent to child and results in an inherited predisposition or susceptibility to develop cancer.

Who gets hereditary cancer?

Approximately 1 in every 2 men and 1 in every 3 women will develop some type of cancer in their lifetime; 1 in 300 during their childhood. About one in 10 people (including children) who develop cancer have had the diagnosis because of an inherited risk factor. It is important to remember that inheriting a predisposition to cancer does not guarantee it will occur.

Most cancer cases are not due to an inherited cause, but rather occur as a single occurrence. This sporadic occurrence of cancer accounts for approximately 80-85% of cancer cases. However, when we do see a cluster of cancer in a family, there are several possible explanations:

  • It may simply be chance or coincidence that several relatives have developed cancer because cancer is such a common disease.
  • A family may have what is referred to as a familial clustering of cancer. A combination of genetic and environmental factors may work together to somehow increase the risk of cancer for a particular family.
  • All members of a family have some genetic material in common with each other. In addition, family members often share the same environment within a single household and often have similar lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol use, nutrition and exercise. Approximately 10-15% of all cancers fall within this familial cancer category.
  • It is possible that a family may have a single gene mutation that puts certain family members at an increased risk to develop certain types of cancer. The altered gene can be passed from parent to child and results in an inherited predisposition or susceptibility to develop cancer. Approximately 5-10% of all cancer has an inherited cause, and it is important to remember that inheriting a predisposition to cancer does not guarantee it will occur.

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Tim Garrington, MD

Tim Garrington, MD

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