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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 inherited gene changes is called “sporadic cancer.” It is believed that most—perhaps 90%—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 cancer often occur earlier than the sporadic form of the same cancer, so experts often recommend different screening, at a younger age for people with hereditary cancer in their family.
  • Hereditary cancers are caused in part by gene changes 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.
  • 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 or follow-up care.

Updated 8/31/16

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