DNA and Cancer Risk

According to the National cancer Institute: “Cancer is a genetic disease-that is, cancer is caused by certain changes to genes that control the way our cells function, especially how they grow and divide. These changes include mutations in the DNA that makes up our genes.” As this quote claims, changes to our genes, such as mutations in the DNA, can increase the risk of cancer. These changes are either Inherited or Acquired.

Inherited Gene Mutations

If someone in your family has cancer, does that mean you will get it? Not necessarily, but if there is a history of cancer in your family, it may point to DNA. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) states that inherited genetic mutations play a major role in about five to ten percent of all cancers.

You can inherit cancer-predisposing genetic mutations from your parents if those genetic mutations were present in their reproductive cells. Such genetic changes are called germline changes and, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), these changes are present in every cell of the offspring. Therefore, if your parents had cancer-causing genetic mutations in their reproductive cells, every cell in your body would have the same genetic mutations.

It is worth noting, however, that these are “potential” cancer-causing genetic changes. These mutated genes are NOT a guarantee of cancer. While they GENERALLY increase the risk of developing it, the level of risk is different person to person.

Acquired Gene Mutations

In addition to mutations that may be passed down from parent to child, cancer-causing mutations in the DNA may also be caused during a person’s lifetime as a result of errors in cell division or exposure to carcinogens. These “acquired” genetic changes may arise at any time during a person’s life.

Benefits of Genetic Testing & Importance of Early Detection

According to the American Cancer Society, “early detection of cancer through screening has been determined to reduce mortality from cancers of the colon and rectum, breast, uterine cervix, and lung.”

Screenings, such as mammograms, are used to check for the presence of cancer but do not determine a person’s level of risk for potentially developing cancer in the future. If you have a family history of cancer, genetic testing can identify whether or not you carry known cancer-causing mutations. In fact, NCI asserts that “many experts recommend that genetic testing for cancer risk be considered when someone has a personal or family history that suggests an inherited cancer risk condition… “

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