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Understanding BRCA & HBOC > Hereditary Cancer > Hereditary Cancer & Genetics

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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.

Overview

All cancers are caused by changes to materials in our bodies called “genes.” These are units of information in every cell of our bodies. Genes tell our bodies which proteins to make based on the type of cell and its needs. Some genes tell our bodies how to fix damage accumulated over time from normal aging, environmental toxins, sun exposure, dietary factors, hormones, and other influences. These damage-controlling genes can repair cells or tell cells when to stop growing and die if there is too much damage to repair.

When genes themselves are damaged, they can develop changes called “mutations.” When mutations occur in the damage-controlling genes, cells can grow out of control and cause cancer.

For most people who develop cancer, the cancer-causing gene mutations happen over the course of a lifetime, leading to cancer later in life. Some people are born with a gene mutation that they inherited from their mother or father. This damaged gene puts them at higher risk for cancer than most people. When cancer occurs because of an inherited gene mutation, it is referred to as "hereditary cancer."