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Inherited Risk and Genetic Testing

Blue chromosome DNA strand

Genes are sections of DNA that are in every cell. Mutations, or changes in genes, make a person more likely to get cancer.

Genes are sections of DNA that are in every cell. They hold information that determines traits such as hair and eye color. These details are passed from parents to children.

Mutations, or changes in genes, may make someone more likely to get cancer. A person may be the first one in the family to have the condition. Or they may have inherited the gene change from 1 or both parents.

About 10–15% of children with cancer carry a gene change that is linked to an inherited risk for cancer.

What you need to know about inherited risk for cancer

If you have cancer that is caused by a genetic condition, it means that:

  • You may need regular testing like imaging tests and blood work. These tests can help find any problems early which makes them easier to treat or be cured. You may also be able to have surgeries that reduce your risk of other cancers.
  • You should practice healthy habits, such as exercising, eating healthy foods, using sunscreen, and not smoking.
  • Other family members can choose to be tested to see if they also have the gene mutation.

Research spotlight

Scientists may have found why Hodgkin lymphoma is sometimes passed down in some families.

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How to find out about your family’s risk for cancer

First, gather your family’s medical history, especially for your parents, children, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and first cousins. It is most important to have information on anyone who has had cancer, sickle cell disease, or another serious childhood illness.

  • Find out what type of illness the relative had and how old they were when it was diagnosed.
  • If a family member had cancer in more than 1 body part, find out if doctors thought it was 1 type of cancer that had spread or a different type of cancer.
  • If the cancer happened in the eyes, breasts, lungs, kidneys, or adrenal glands, find out if it was in 1 or both organs.
  • If any family members have had genetic testing, ask for copies of their results.
  • Get copies of family members’ cancer medical records.

If you learn that your family has a history of cancer, talk to your health care provider. You may also want to meet with a genetic counselor or other genetics professional.

Female nurse in purple scrubs showing a book to a mother and daughter.

A health care provider will ask about your family’s medical history and talk about your child’s risk for cancer.

When to seek genetic testing for cancer

Consider genetic testing for:

  • A child who has a cancer that might be linked to a genetic condition.
  • A child who does not have cancer but, based on body features, may have a genetic condition that increases the risk of getting it.
  • Children and teens who have close family members with a genetic condition linked to certain cancers.

How genetic testing for cancer works

There are many kinds of genetic tests. First, your health care provider will talk to you about genetic testing and get your consent to test. They will usually collect a small amount of blood or saliva (spit). Sometimes they collect a small tissue sample. Then they send the sample to a lab for testing.

Later, you will meet with a doctor or genetic counselor to discuss the results. You can discuss what the results may mean for you and your family.

Questions to ask about inherited risk and genetic testing for cancer

  • Why should my child get genetic testing?
  • How old should my child be when they get tested?
  • What kind of genetic testing is best?
  • Should family members get tested too? If so, which ones?
  • Will insurance cover the cost of genetic testing?
  • How can I find support?

Key points about inherited risk and genetic testing for cancer

  • Sometimes, changes in genes can make your child more likely to get cancer.
  • Talk with your care team about the benefits and risks of genetic testing. If you decide to get genetic testing for your child, you will provide informed consent.
  • If you give consent, a member of your care team will order genetic testing to see if your child has a genetic condition.
  • You can meet with a genetic counselor to talk about what a genetic condition might mean for your child's health.
  • Genetic testing can help other family members find out if they also have genetic conditions.
  • Knowing if your child has a genetic condition helps the health care team plan for their care.

Find more information

Follow the links below for more information on inherited risk and genetic testing.

Reviewed: August 2023