What's the difference between hereditary versus non-hereditary cancers?

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Answered by: Megan, An Expert in the Cancer in Women Category
Cancer falls under three different categories: sporadic, familial, and hereditary. Each type of cancer presents itself in a unique way and has its own risks and complications. In some cases, certain types of cancer run in a family due to certain lifestyle factors, like a poor diet or smoking, while others may be passed down from generation to generation. Below is an explanation of hereditary versus non-hereditary cancers.

Sporadic Cancer

90 percent of all cancers are sporadic. Sporadic cancer is the type of cancer that is not due to inherited gene mutations, meaning people who have this type do not typically have a family history of that cancer. Sporadic cancer can occur due to an acquired mutation that happens over time, but can also be caused by things that damage a cell’s DNA such as smoking, aging, and exposure to radiation and chemicals.

Reduce your risk of sporadic cancer by:

     Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly

     Getting regular checkups, partaking in screening programs, and regular self-examinations

     Quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake and avoiding known carcinogens

Familial Cancer

Familial cancer is usually caused by a combination of environmental factors and genetics. Though individuals with this type of cancer may have several family members with the same type of cancer, there is not a clear pattern of an inherited gene mutation. This type of cancer generally occurs at an earlier than average age and can also be a sign of shared environmental or lifestyle factors.

Hereditary Cancer

Hereditary cancer occurs when a gene that normally helps prevent cancer is mutated. Individuals with hereditary cancers are more likely to have family members with the same type or a related cancer, like breast and ovarian cancers. The biggest difference in hereditary versus non-hereditary cancers is that these type of cancers are pass down from generation to generation due to an inherited gene mutation.

There are many different clues that may indicate a potential risk for an inherited gene mutation in families that include:

     Several cases of an uncommon type of cancer, like melanoma

     Cancer that occurs at an early age, like breast cancer in a 30-year-old

     Cancer that occurs in both pairs of organs, like in both eyes or both breasts

     More than one cancer in one type of person, like having both breast and ovarian cancer

     Childhood cancer that appears in siblings, like sarcoma in both a brother and a sister

Just because a person has inherited a gene mutation does not necessarily mean that they will get cancer, it only means their risk is higher. If you or a member of your family have any reason to suspect that you may be at risk for hereditary cancer, genetic testing can guide your next steps.

Hereditary Cancer Syndrome

Hereditary Cancer Syndrome dictates an inherited gene mutation that increases your risk for one or more types of cancer. The main hereditary cancer syndromes are Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) and Lynch Syndrome.

Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) syndrome is caused by mutations in one of two genes: BRCA1 or BRCA2. Women with HBOC typically have a high risk for both ovarian and breast cancer. Men with HBOC have a high risk for breast and prostate cancer. At times, these cancers can develop at a young age.

Lynch Syndrome (LS) is caused by mutations in one of five genes: MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, and EPCAM. Lynch Syndrome is also sometimes known as Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC). People with LS have a higher risk for developing several different types of cancer. The highest risks are for colorectal cancer in women and men and for endometrial cancer in women. Some people with Lynch Syndrome may be diagnosed with cancer two or more times in their lifetime.

Each of these three cancers are very different and can affect women, men, and families all differently. If you suspect any changes in your health or if a certain type of cancer or cancer syndrome runs in your family, be sure to discuss your health with your doctor.

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