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Is My Cancer Hereditary?

A new diagnosis of cancer, especially a rare cancer, can raise more questions than answers, even after meeting with many specialists.  Often patients diagnosed with a rare cancer wonder “Why did I get this cancer?”  “Does this mean my family members, my children, brothers or sisters are at risk for cancer too?”  “What can I do? What can they do?”

Sarcomas, cancers of the bone or soft tissue (including muscle), are one of these rare cancers that many people may not be aware of until a friend or loved one is diagnosed. For most patients diagnosed with sarcoma, the cause is not known.  There are some known risk factors that increase risk for sarcoma.  Excessive exposure to chemicals or radiation has been linked to an increased risk of developing sarcoma. Certain genetic, or inherited, conditions can also be associated with sarcomas.

If you, a friend or family member has been diagnosed with sarcoma, it may be helpful to ask some questions about your family history.  Sit down with your family members, and ask:

  • Have any other family members had cancer?  Relatives with sarcoma, breast cancer, colon cancer, leukemia or lymphoma are especially important.
  • How old were relatives when they were diagnosed with cancer?
  • Have any children in the family had cancer?

As you gather this information, share it with your oncologist or primary care physician, and talk with him or her about whether a referral for genetic counseling and genetic testing may be helpful. Genetic counselors and physicians in our Cancer Genetics Clinic can review your family history and help to determine if genetic testing may be needed.  They can also talk with you about possible results of genetic testing, and how this information would be used.  If the cancer risk in your family is inherited, special screening may be recommended to help with early detection and prevention.