Hereditary 101

The human body is made up of trillions of cells that provide instructions for how the body should function. All the cells in the body contain DNA, which is packaged into thousands of genes. Each gene provides the instructions for our body to perform a particular function. For most genes in our body we have two copies – one inherited from our mom and one inherited from our dad.

The genes we inherit from our parents help to determine who we are – from the color of our eyes to our susceptibility to certain diseases, including cancer.

A gene mutation is a change in the DNA that affects the way a particular gene works. Some genes function to prevent cancer from developing. A mutation in one of these genes will make the body less effective at stopping abnormal cell growth, and this would mean cancer is more likely to develop. Most cancers do not run in the family, but a fraction of cancers might be caused by a gene mutation that is inherited from a parent. These inherited gene mutations increase a person’s risk for developing cancer, often at younger ages.

If you do carry an inherited mutation that has been linked to cancer, knowing your risk can help you and your doctor make better, more informed decisions about your health. Many options are available to prevent cancer or catch it at an earlier, more treatable stage. It can also help you protect your children and other family members.