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August 28, 2012 > Is There a History of Cancer in Your Family?

Is There a History of Cancer in Your Family?

Seminar Focuses on Cancer Risk Based on Family History of the Disease

If you have a history of cancer in your family - or you have a close relative that has been diagnosed - chances are you have a lot of questions. How does this impact your risk of developing cancer? What about your children? Are there tests to determine risk? Are there ways to change your risk profile? What about screenings?

On Tuesday, Sept. 4, from Noon to 1 p.m., Vandana B. Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., an oncologist on the Washington Hospital Medical Staff and director of the hospital's Cancer Genetics Program, and Nicki Chun, M.S., CGC, a genetic counselor with the Stanford Cancer Genetics Clinic, will present Cancer in the Family: Am I at Risk?, a free Lunch and Learn lecture at the Washington Women's Center. The program will discuss why and how genetic counseling can help individuals with a strong family history of cancer.

Learn more and reduce your risk

"By getting information early on and understanding their risk, people can positively impact their outcomes when it comes to cancer," according to Dr. Sharma. "Unfortunately, many people out there may not even realize that their risk for developing cancer is something they can alter, but it's true."

Referred to as a cancer syndrome, this type of genetic predisposition increases a person's lifetime risk of developing cancer.

"An individual diagnosed with cancer who has some family history, or women with a mother or sister diagnosed with breast cancer, or anyone diagnosed with multiple cancers, such as breast and ovarian - these individuals are our target audience when talking about heritability and cancer," Dr. Sharma says.

For these individuals in particular, knowledge can make all the difference in early detection - and even avoidance of developing cancer, according to Dr. Sharma. In the past, she says patients have told her they thought they were destined to develop cancer - even die of it - because they had a family history of the disease. Dr. Sharma is adamant that this is not the case. And genetic testing has become a valuable tool in evaluating individuals' risk of certain types of cancer, as well as in taking steps to change that risk.

Strategies to diagnose cancer early

"When we do genetic testing, we're able to implement strategies to diagnose the cancer earlier and sometimes even prevent it," Dr. Sharma says. "If we do test the individuals and family members, and an individual doesn't have the gene mutation - not gene - then they know they don't have an increased risk, and therefore they don't have to do the more frequent screening."

Dr. Sharma adds that one of the reasons she wants people to be aware of a family history of cancer is because this knowledge might change how screening is approached. Similarly, individuals diagnosed with more than two cancers are more prone to a genetic predisposition that could be shared amongst family members - people whose screening schedules for cancer may change drastically based on this information.

"Take, for example, the general screening schedule for colon cancer, which typically begins at age 50," she says. "If everything is normal, a person is screened five to 10 years later. However, with a strong family history, the schedule increases in frequency to one to three years. We always recommend that people with a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed begin the screening 10 years younger than the age their relative was diagnosed. We wouldn't wait until the age the cancer was found in the family member."

Getting answers

Stanford genetic counselor Nicki Chun recommends seeking information rather than feeling anxious and uncertain about what the future may hold.

"Many people have relatives with cancer," Chun says. "We'll discuss who might benefit from genetic testing, the basics of inherited cancer risk, what genetic tests are currently available, and what might become available in the future."

She says people have a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to cancer risk, and genetic counseling is a good way of getting answers.

"Two of the most common questions people have when they come to genetic counseling are: 'What caused my cancer?' and 'What does it mean for my kids and relatives?' The other outstanding question is: 'How will this affect my treatment?'"

In addition to altering screening frequency, Chun says, treatment options for individuals with cancer are frequently adjusted based on knowledge about family history and genetic risk.

Moreover, treatment modalities and technology also evolve quickly in the realm of cancer care, which is why it's important to seek the latest information, according to Chun.

Learn More About Genetic Testing

The Washington Cancer Genetics Program offers genetic counseling for individuals concerned with the risk of an inherited cancer predisposition. To learn more about this program or to make an appointment, call (510) 608-1356 or visit For more information about classes at the Washington Women's Center, call (510) 608-1301. To register for this class, visit and click on the button titled "Upcoming Health Seminars."

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