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Hereditary Cancer & Genetics

Learn about genes and cancer, signs of hereditary cancer, genetic counseling, types of genetic tests and what results mean for you and your family.

Hereditary vs. sporadic cancer

Cancer is a common disease, so most families will have some members who have had cancer. Cancer that is not due to an inherited gene mutation (change) is called sporadic cancer. It is believed that most—perhaps 80%—of all cancers are sporadic. This means even if cancer does not run in a family, a family member can still be at risk for some type of cancer in his or her lifetime.

Sporadic cancer and hereditary cancer differ in several ways that may affect health care decisions:

  • Hereditary cancers are caused in part by gene mutations passed on from parents to their children. Other blood relatives may share these same gene changes. Sporadic cancers are believed to arise from gene damage acquired from environmental exposures, dietary factors, hormones, normal aging, and other influences. Most acquired gene changes are not shared among relatives or passed on to children.
  • Hereditary cancers often occur earlier than the sporadic form of the same cancer, so experts often recommend different screening, at a younger age for people with a gene mutation or hereditary cancer in their family.

  • Hereditary cancers can sometimes be more aggressive than the sporadic form of the same cancer. For example, hereditary prostate cancers tend to be more aggressive and more likely to spread than sporadic prostate cancers. 

  • Hereditary cancers may respond to different treatments than sporadic cancers. For example, PARP inhibitors are drugs that were designed to treat cancers associated with BRCA mutations. The agent Keytruda has been approved for treating cancers in people with one of the mutations that causes Lynch Syndrome

  • Individuals who have inherited a gene change may be at a higher risk for more than one type of cancer. For cancer survivors, this may affect cancer treatment options, prevention, or follow-up care.

Updated 7/28/17

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