Genetics and Cancer: Is Cancer Hereditary?


Could you be genetically pre-disposed to certain cancers? Our doctors weigh in on hereditary risk factors and preventive measures you can take on your own. 

Nearly 40 percent of men and women are diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetime, but the causes differ. Sometimes, certain types of cancer seem to run in some families, but only a small portion of all cancers are actually  inherited. We asked Dr. Nathan Slotnick, M.D., Renown Medical Group – Oncology/Hematology, to explain more about the role genetics play when it comes to cancer. 

What is the genetic component of cancer?

All living things are made of cells, and complex animals — like humans — have trillions of cells. These cells work together to form organs, such as the heart and liver.

Cancer begins when genes (pieces of DNA inside each cell) become abnormal and the cell starts to grow and divide — mutate — out of control. Mutations are abnormal changes in the DNA of a gene and mutations can affect the cell in many ways. Often, many mutations are needed before a cell becomes a cancer cell.

There are two main types of mutation: inherited (present in the egg or sperm) and acquired (developed later in life). Acquired mutations can be caused by things we are exposed to, such as cigarette smoke, radiation and diet. However, some people have a higher risk of developing cancer because they have inherited mutations in certain genes.

It’s important to remember that gene mutations happen in our cells all the time. Usually, the cell can detect the change and repair itself without you even noticing.

Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention at Renown

Breast cancer begins when abnormal cells in the breast grow out of control. These cells form tumors that can grow into the surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer occurs mostly in women, but men can also develop breast cancer.

To schedule a mammogram or whole breast ultrasound, call 775-982-8100 or schedule an appointment online.

How do you know if cancer runs in your family and what can you do if you think it does?

There are several questions you can ask yourself to start to determine if cancer runs in your family:

  • Do you have more than one family member on the same side of the family with the same type of cancer?
  • Do you have personal or family history of breast, endometrial or colon cancer at a young age (under 50 years old)?
  • Do you or others in your family have histories of more than one occurrence or type of cancer?
  • Have you or a family member had more than 10 polyps in their colon?
  • Does anyone in the family have a documented change in a cancer predisposition gene (BRCA 1 or 2, p53, ALK, Lynch Syndrome: EPCAM, PALB2, TP53, APC)?

Discuss the answers to these questions with your primary care provider. If they think it’s appropriate, they can refer you to Renown’s Cancer Genetics Program. This program works with patients whose personal medical and family history indicates a possible hereditary cancer syndrome. The majority of patients undergo genetic studies based on comprehensive personal and family history analysis. All results are then reviewed with each patient and their provider.

What are some of the controllable risk factors for cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, limiting your exposure to the avoidable risk factors below may lower your risk of developing certain cancers:

  • Alcohol: Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx (voice box), liver, and breast. If you do consume alcohol, only do so moderately.
  • Cancer-causing substances: Cancer is caused by changes to certain genes that alter the way our cells function and some of these genetic changes are the result of environmental exposures that damage DNA. This include substances such as the chemicals in tobacco smoke or radiation, and ultraviolet rays from the sun.
  • Chronic Inflammation: Inflammation is a normal physiological response that causes injured tissue to heal. An inflammatory process starts when chemicals are released by the damaged tissue. In chronic inflammation, the inflammatory process may begin even if there is no injury, and it does not end when it should. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer.
  • Diet: When preparing a meal, aim to fill at least two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
  • Obesity: People who are obese may have an increased risk of several types of cancer, including cancers of the breast (in women who have been through menopause), colon, rectum, endometrium (lining of the uterus), esophagus, kidney, pancreas, and gallbladder. Eating a healthy diet and being physically active helps to reduce obesity and the risk for cancer.

To learn more about the Renown Institute for Cancer, visit or call 775-982-4000.

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