Family History of Cancer: Can it Affect Me?

Aditi Shenai

May 14, 2022

The diseases and ailments that run in your family account for your family’s health history. Your family members may transfer genes, behaviours, or circumstances that influence your cancer risk. As per the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) report, there were approximately 18.1 million cancer cases in 2020. These cases were almost evenly distributed among males (9.3 million) and females (8.8 million). Furthermore, the WHO considers cancer one of the leading causes of death globally, with about 10 million people losing their lives to cancer in 2020. It means that one out of every six deaths results from cancer.

The above data may look scary. However, the ray of hope is that early detection can cure many cancers and treat them properly. But, before that, it is essential to understand the root cause of cancer. Tobacco consumption, free radicals in your body and environmental factors are primary causes of cancer. Furthermore, another significant cause is family history.

Cancer can run in families. For example, in some cases, if you have close relatives who have developed breast cancer, bowel cancer, or ovarian cancer, your chances of having the disease increase. However, it doesn’t imply that if any of your close relatives have cancer, you are at a higher risk of specific malignancies (cancer tumours) than other individuals. 

Research suggests that an inherited defective gene is responsible for 3 to 10 out of 100 malignancies, about 3-10%. It also states that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25–30% are due to tobacco, as many as 30–35% are due to diet, about 15–20% are due to infections, and the remaining result from other factors like radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants etc.

Cancer: An Overview

Cancer is a medical condition where some cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other body parts. It is different from the regular life cycle of normal cells. Normal cells multiply in an orderly manner as the body needs them. When these cells grow old, they die, and another cell takes its place. However, this orderly process sometimes breaks down, and cells start growing even when the body does not need them. When the number of these cells becomes very large, they form lumps of tissues called tumours. These can be cancerous.

These cancerous tumours soon begin to spread throughout the body. They start invading nearby tissues and travelling through metastasis to distant body parts. Hence, they inhibit the functioning of other organs as well. 

Cancer cells make the blood vessels grow towards the tumour. As a result, the cancerous cells can receive oxygen to multiply even further. Not only this, the blood carries the waste material from the tumour, helping the cancerous cells to grow uninterrupted. 

Types of Cancers

As our body consists of billions and billions of cells, cancer can start in almost any part of the body. As a result, there are different kinds of cancers. The most common ones include:

  • Skin cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Renal cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Endometrial cancer 
  • Blood cancer

Are All Cancers Genetic?

Faulty genes are responsible for causing cancer. There are two ways in which you can acquire a defective gene. 

  • You can inherit it from a parent. 
  • Another way is through changes in the gene that happen throughout your life.

Since cancer is a genetic disease, genes play a crucial role in detection and prevention. Inherited genetic alterations significantly influence approximately 5 to 10% of all cancers. However, some studies show that more than 50 hereditary cancer syndromes, which are illnesses that may predispose people to various malignancies, have been linked to mutations in specific genes.

Family History and Cancer

Cancers happen due to a fault in genes. A faulty gene in any of the parents can increase the risk of the child developing cancer. As per the cancer research UK reports, if a parent has a defective gene, then the probability of the child acquiring the faulty gene is 50%. However, it does not necessarily mean that the child will have cancer. Instead, it means that the risk of cancer in the child is higher. There is a frequent trend of specific types of cancer running in families with an inherited defective gene. The following factors influence the strength of your family history:

Who has had cancer in your family?

The stronger someone’s family history is the more relatives who have had the same or related types of cancer and were younger at diagnosis. This diagnosis suggests that malignancies are more likely to be caused by an inherited defective gene.

How likely are you to get cancer because you inherited a faulty gene from one of your parents? 

Experts suggest that cancer caused due to an inherited defective gene is significantly less than the gene faults acquired during one’s lifetime. For example, genetic experts have said that just 5-10% of the diagnosed cancers are because of an inherited faulty gene. 

  • If two or more close relatives on the same side of the family (your mother’s or father’s side) have the same type of cancer
  • Certain types of cancer that are known to be connected – for example, breast and ovarian cancer or bowel and womb cancers are occurring at young ages (before the age of 50)
  • A close relative has been diagnosed with two types of cancer (rather than one cancer that has spread).

Early Cancer Signals to Look For

What are the signs that things aren’t quite right? Pay attention to your body’s signals. Be cautious when you observe something that could signify a significant health concern, such as cancer, be careful. 

1. Loss of appetite

Many illnesses, ranging from sadness to the flu, can make you feel famished. However, cancer can alter your metabolism or how your body converts food into energy.  Cancers of the stomach, pancreas, colon, and ovaries can also create pressure on the stomach and make you unable to eat.

2. Blood in Faeces and Urine

Cancers can bleed, but so can ulcers, haemorrhoids, infections, and sores. When you find blood in your stool, it’s usually from your GI system, including your oesophagus, stomach, and intestines. Therefore, we should investigate the blood in your stool. When blood appears in your pee, it could indicate an issue with your urinary tract. This symptom can be due to kidney or bladder cancer, but it could also be an infection, kidney stones, or renal disease.

3. Fatigue

Fatigue is one of the most common signs of cancer. We’re not talking about ordinary exhaustion here. It’s a never-ending feeling of fatigue. Consult your doctor if increasing your exercise level or getting more sleep does not help you feel better.

4. Recurring Fever

When your temperature rises, it usually indicates that you’ve contracted an infection. However, some diseases, such as lymphoma, leukaemia, and kidney and liver tumours, can cause this. Fevers from cancer frequently increase and dip during the day, and they can even peak at the same time.

5. Skin Changes

A change in the appearance of a growth or a sore that does not heal is a telltale symptom of skin cancer. Consult a dermatologist if you have a spot that:

  • Increases in size or thickness
  • Colour shifts
  • It has an unusually shaped border.

Screening for Cancer Risk

Genetic Testing 

Genetic testing is a possibility for people who want to learn more about their cancer risk. A blood test for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations is the most well-known genetic test; persons who test positive for these mutations have an elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Make a  note that the following information only recommends predictive genetic testing; tumour profiling is not included (also known as genomics or molecular profiling) 

Predictive genetic testing is available for certain cancers, and your genetic counsellor can advise you based on your family history. Testing for genes that raise the risk of breast, ovarian, colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancers is one example of genetic testing. However, even if you test negative for specific mutations, you could still be at risk for cancer, just like the rest of the population.

Vaccine Shots

According to some studies, Vaccines (shots) can also assist in reducing the risk of cancer. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects against most cervical and other cancers. In addition, the Hepatitis B vaccine can help to reduce the incidence of liver cancer.

Impact of Cancer on Family

Cancer is a chronic and dangerous disease in itself. It has a detrimental effect on the patient’s life and family. Individuals should think about how the findings of a DNA test will affect them and their families. Other family members may also contract cancer if the genetic test reveals alterations in your genes that cause a health issue. In this case, your healthcare provider may recommend that other family members undergo genetic testing.

It is advisable to talk about it with your family and educate them about their options. Nevertheless, you must accept that your family members can make different decisions about genetic testing than you. Individuals and their physicians and genetic counsellors decide, and everyone can remain anonymous regarding their genetic mutations.

Foods to Lower the Risk of Developing Cancer

Eating healthy can significantly reduce cancer risk if you eat the right things. The following foods are a few readily available and can be easily included in your diet to reduce the risk of cancer.

1. Broccoli

Broccoli consists of sulforaphane that has anti-cancer properties. Research showed that sulforaphane could reduce the size of breast cancer cells by up to 75% and hence lower the risk of breast cancer. Similarly, another study showed that sulforaphane could reduce the risk of prostate cancer by killing prostate cancer cells. Analysis of another study showed that sulforaphane could also reduce the risk of colon cancer.   

2. Carrots

Carrots are effective in decreasing the risk of various kinds of cancers. For example, an analysis of 5 previously done studies found that regular carrot consumption can reduce the risk of developing stomach cancer by 26%. Another study found that eating carrots could reduce the risk of prostate cancer by 18%. Surprisingly, carrots can even reduce the risk of lung cancer in smokers. A controlled study found that people who eat carrots more than once a week are three times less likely to get lung cancer than smokers.

3. Beans

Beans are high fibre foods found to reduce cancer risks and reduce the risk of recurrence of tumours. A study on rats found that beans reduced the development of colon cancer cells by up to 75%. Scientists carried out another survey of people with a history of colorectal tumours. It found that people who ate dry beans regularly as a part of their diet were less likely to develop tumours again.

4. Berries

Berries have high antioxidant properties due to a pigment known as anthocyanins. These prove to reduce the risk of cancers of various kinds. A human pilot study found that people with colorectal cancer can significantly benefit when treated with berry extract. In just one week of treatment, berries reduced the growth of cancer cells by 7%. A study on rats found that berries reduced biomarkers associated with cancer. 

5. Cinnamon

Among the various health benefits of cinnamon, one effectively reduces cancer risk. A recent study found that cinnamon extract can reduce the speed of cancer cells spreading through the body. It also killed some of these cells. Cinnamon intake was also helpful for cancers of the head and the neck. A study found that cinnamon oil reduced the growth of cancer cells in the head and the neck.

6. Olive Oil

In a review of 19 studies, scientists found that olive oil could significantly reduce the risk of breast and stomach cancer. Another study found that people who lived in areas where people consume olive oil more (the Mediterranean, for example) had lower rates of colorectal cancer.

Other Ways to Reduce Cancer Risk

Besides paying attention to what you eat, we can adopt many different ways to reduce cancer risk. These, when complemented with diet, can significantly reduce the risk of developing cancer.  

1. Avoid Tobacco Completely

Tobacco drastically increases the risk of getting some other form of cancer. For example, smoking can cause cancers like cancer of the lungs, throat, mouth, larynx, bladder and kidney. Similarly, chewing tobacco is associated with an increased risk of oral cavity cancer and pancreatic cancer. Direct consumption of tobacco can increase cancer risk. In addition, even secondary exposure (passive smoking) can increase cancer risk. 

2. Be Physically Active

Physical activity is of utmost importance in today’s digital age. Regular physical exercise enhances blood circulation in the body. It also helps maintain a healthy weight that significantly reduces the risk of colon, prostate and breast cancer. You should aim for at least 3 hours of moderately vigorous exercise per week. Exercise doesn’t mean only going to the gym. You can walk, swim, dance, run, do aerobics or yoga and so on. You can also change your exercise routine periodically to prevent boredom.

3. Reduce Exposure to the Sun

Skin cancer is a common form of cancer caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. It is best to minimise exposure to the sun to avoid harmful UV rays. The sun rays must be the strongest between 10 am and 4 pm. Whenever you go out in the sun, make sure you cover your entire body with bright coloured clothes to reflect most of the sun’s rays. Applying a high factor sunscreen is of utmost importance. Speak with a skin specialist or medical practitioner to know which products to choose.


Cancer is a widespread medical condition in today’s world. It can be because of both hereditary and lifestyle reasons. However, a tiny percentage of cancers can result from genetic reasons. As a result, it is possible to minimise the risk of getting cancer to a large extent. One can do this by modifying the diet to include fruits and vegetables like berries, broccoli, carrots, beans, spices like cinnamon and substituting olive oil for other fats. In addition, make sure you remain physically active, altogether avoid all forms of tobacco and reduce exposure to the sun. All these things, when together, can go a long way in reducing the risk of cancer. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. What type of cancer is hereditary?

A. There has been a lot of debate about cancer being hereditary or a lifestyle cause. It is now clear that most cancers are due to one’s deranged lifestyle. However, experts suggest that a small percentage (5-10%) of cancers are due to hereditary reasons, i.e. they are transferred to the child from either the mother or the father. The most hereditary cancers are breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and stomach cancer.  

Q. What are the chances of getting cancer if both parents had it?

A. Cancers are majorly due to faulty genes. If a parent has a defective gene, there is a 50% chance that the child can get it. However, this does not mean that the child will necessarily have cancer in his life. It only means that the child will have an increased risk of cancer because of the inheritance of the faulty gene from the parent.  

Q. Does cancer skip a generation?

A. No, cancer does not skip a generation. If one of your parents has cancer, then there is a 50% chance that you will inherit the faulty gene. Also. if you inherit the defective gene, it is again a 50% chance that you will pass it to your children. If you do not inherit the defective gene, you will not pass the faulty gene to your children. 

Q. What is the difference between familial and hereditary cancer?

A. Cancer that occurs in families more frequently than mere chance is familial. The faulty gene is passed on to the child by one of the parents. On the other hand, cancer passed to the child through mutation is hereditary cancer.  

Q. Can cancer be passed from mother to child?

A. Yes, cancer can be transferable from mother to child. All types of cancers can result from faulty genes. If a parent has a defective gene, there is a 50% chance that they can transfer it to the child. However, this does not mean that the child will necessarily have cancer in his life. It only means that the child will have an increased risk of cancer because of the inheritance of the faulty gene from the parent. 

Q. Is cancer a dominant or recessive gene?

A. Most inherited cancer syndromes are caused by dominant inheritance. Recessive inheritance means that a person must inherit two copies of a gene mutation (one from each parent) to have the family cancer syndrome.

Q. What increases your risk of cancer?

A. The risk of cancer functions what you eat, your lifestyle, and your genetics. While we can do little about your genetics, there is much that one can do about the other two factors. For example, excessive consumption of processed meat, dairy products, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and overcooked food can increase cancer risk. Also, all forms of tobacco, overexposure to the sun and excessive exposure to the sun can increase cancer risk. 

Q. Is cancer more genetic or environmental?

A. There has been a lot of debate about cancer being hereditary or a lifestyle cause. It is now clear that most cancers result from one’s lifestyle. However, experts suggest that a small percentage (5-10%) of cancers are due to hereditary reasons, i.e. are transferred to the child from either the mother or the father. The cancers inherited from one’s parents can be transferred to future generations. However, the cancers that develop over one’s life cycle are not transmitted. 

Q. What can I do to prevent cancer?

A. What you eat plays a vital role in minimising cancer risk. Fruits and vegetables like berries, broccoli, carrots, and beans are helpful. Substituting olive oil for all other fats has also been beneficial. Spices like cinnamon also help in reducing cancer risk. In addition to what you eat, it is essential to take care of a few more things. Make sure you remain physically active, avoid all forms of tobacco and reduce exposure to the sun. All these things can go a long way in reducing cancer risk.  

Q. How does diet cause cancer?

A. A study has suggested that eating the right kind of food can reduce the chances of cancer by 30 to 50%. Overeating processed meat, dairy products, refined carbohydrates, sugar and overcooked food can increase cancer risk. On the other hand, increasing the intake of berries, broccoli, carrots, beans, cinnamon, and olive oil has reduced cancer risk.

About the Author

M.Sc in: Dietetics and Applied Nutrition from Manipal University. Worked: All over India and have been involved in helping set up nutrition departments in start ups. Interested in lifestyle based nutrition. Mantra: A healthy lifestyle isn't a choice to be made or discarded, it's a way of life!

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