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Family History

What is family history and how does it affect my risk?

Your Family Medical History [chart]You may be at greater risk for some cancers if you have a personal or family history of cancer or certain other diseases. To help determine your risk, complete this family medical history chart and share it with your health care professional and other family members.

For blood relatives, mark in the boxes if they have had cancer, the type of cancer they had and the age of diagnosis. This will help you and your health care professional decide which cancer screenings you need and when to begin them.

View a printable PDF version of the family history chart

Genetic testing 

Genetic testing is an option for those who want more information about their cancer risk. The most well-known genetic test is a blood test for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations—those that test positive for these mutations are at increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers.

Please note that the following information applies to predictive genetic testing only; this is different from tumor profiling (also known as genomics or molecular profiling), which is done after a cancer diagnosis to determine mutations that may affect how the patient responds to certain treatments.

Predictive genetic testing is available for several types of cancers, and your genetic counselor can help guide you based on your family history. Genetic testing includes, but is not limited to, testing for mutations that increase risk for breast, ovarian, colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancers. However, even if you test negative for these mutations, you could still be at risk for developing cancer, like others in the general population. Only 5-10 percent of cancer cases are caused by hereditary gene mutations.

Whom do I see to be tested?

If you are considering genetic testing, you should meet with a genetic counselor. The genetic counselor will discuss the full picture of your health and risk factors (including family history), the pros and cons of genetic testing and your options after you do the test. You should check with your insurance company before meeting with a genetic counselor to see if the meeting and/or genetic testing are covered by your insurance.

You might want to think about genetic testing if:

  • There are several members of your family who have had the same type of cancer
  • You have family members whose cancers were diagnosed at young ages for their cancer types
  • There is cancer in your family that is sometimes linked to gene mutation (like breast or ovarian cancer)
  • Your family member has had genetic testing and discovered a gene mutation

Please note that genetic testing—regardless of the result—does not take the place of regular cancer screenings.

Broad-based genetic testing:

The Prevent Cancer Foundation® recommends against broad-based genetic testing, or simultaneously testing for hundreds of diseases. This type of testing is not individualized based on family history and personal risk, and will surely pick up mutations for which risk is not known or nothing can be done, which can result in more harm than good for the patient.

The right not to know:

If you are considering genetic testing, you might also want to share this information with your family members. Gene mutations are hereditary, and some of your family members likely share similar or identical risk factors. We encourage you to discuss this topic with your family and help make them aware of their options; however, you must understand if your family members come to a different decision than you in regards to pursuing genetic testing. It is a decision between individuals and their physicians and genetic counselors, and everyone has the right not to know about his or her genetic mutations.

If you are adopted:

If you are adopted, you might have limited or no knowledge of your family history. Talk to your genetic counselor about any family history you are aware of and your race/ethnicity to see if genetic testing makes sense for you. You should also always inform your doctor if you are adopted.

Resources:

National Society of Genetic Counselors
This site features a patient information section where you can find a genetic counselor near you. There is also additional FAQs and information on genetic testing.

National Cancer Institute Genetics Services Directory
Lists professionals in the field of cancer genetics. They must apply and meet certain criteria in order to be listed.

Take this online quiz to learn your risk for a number of hereditary cancers

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