Cancer Genetics unit at Norris Cancer Center

Cancer Genetics unit at Norris/ understanding your risks/ F.A.Q.S.

Cancer Genetics Unit at USC/Norris Cancer Center

Although most cancers are not hereditary, in some families a predisposition to cancer can be passed from one generation to the other. The Cancer Genetics Unit at USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital provides genetic counseling and cancer risk assessment for individuals from high-risk families and patients who have been diagnosed with cancer at a young age or at multiple sites. The unit includes a genetic counselor and a team of cancer specialists who provide genetic counseling for hereditary cancer and offer genetic testing for some common tumors .Cancer prevention is our mission. Those at high risk for cancer may be offered the opportunity to take advantage of the many innovative strategies for cancer prevention, detection and treatment that are under development at USC/Norris Cancer Center.

Understanding your risks

Your family history is key to understanding your cancer risk. Not every family with cancer is a high-risk family. Genetic counseling can help identify families with a hereditary pattern of cancer. Genetic testing is more than a blood test. The team at the Cancer Genetics Unit can help you explore the pros and cons of testing and answer some of the important questions before you make your decision. What will a positive or negative test result mean for me and my family? Once I know my cancer risk, what are my options?
Early risk detection can have substantial benefits. Knowing your family's cancer risk allows you to share potentially life-saving information with your relatives. Some in the family may be reassured by a low risk, while others can get the prevention and care they need early, long before cancer develops.


Q: Can the risk of cancer be inherited?
A: Although in most cases having relatives with cancer will increase cancer risk only slightly, in some families a high risk of cancer is indeed inherited.
Q: What is the link between family history and the risk of cancer?
A: We know that although most of the time a high cancer risk does not run in families, having close relatives diagnosed with cancer does increase someone's risk of developing the disease. If several relatives are affected, or if their cancers were diagnosed at young ages (before 50), the risk of cancer to other family members may be higher.
Q: How do I know if my family has a high risk of cancer?
A: A comprehensive evaluation of your family history by a clinical team experienced in cancer risk assessment is the best way to determine the level of cancer risk in your family. Certain characteristics of the family history, such as 3 or more relatives on the same side of the family with the same or related forms of cancer, or 2 or more relatives diagnosed with cancer before age 50, or two different cancers in the same person may provide clues. Some high-risk families are more difficult to recognize because of small family size, or other factors.
Q: What information should I collect on my family history?
A: Ask about your mother's and father's side of the family. Collect information on at least 3 generations starting with you and going back to your grandparents' generation. For each relative ask about serious illnesses, birth defects, and inherited disorders. If the relative had cancer, find out at what age it was diagnosed and where it started. If the relative is deceased ask about the age and cause of death. Sometimes you will need to recruit the help of other family members in gathering this kind of information.
Q: How is cancer risk inherited?
A: Genes are the blueprints for our bodies. They determine how we look and how our bodies function. Changes or alterations in our genes can be inherited or develop during our lifetime. Some genes, when altered, can lead to cancer. Most of the time these genetic alterations occur randomly as we get older, but in some families, about 5 to 10 percent of all families with cancer, these genetic alterations can be passed down from one generation to the next and lead to markedly increased risks for certain cancers.
Q: Is it possible to have a genetic test to find out about my cancer risk?
A: Genetic testing is available for the most common hereditary breast, ovarian, and colorectal cancers, as well as for a few other rare conditions. Genetic testing can show if the cancer in a family is related to inherited genetic alterations. It is usually performed on a blood sample. Genetic tests for cancer risk are complex, and sometimes difficult to interpret. In order to ensure that the most appropriate test is performed genetic counseling is recommended prior to doing the test.
Q: How would I decide if a genetic test for cancer risk is right for me or my family?
A: The option of genetic testing for hereditary cancer risk may be offered to individuals who appear to be at high risk based on their family or personal histories of cancer. Because of the complex medical, psychosocial, and family issues associated with testing, it should only be done as part of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary program that includes genetic counseling, education, and psychosocial evaluation. The decision to be tested is very personal, and should be made only after the individual has had ample opportunity to explore all its implications.
Q: What should I do if I want to know more about my/my family's risk of cancer?
A: The Cancer Genetics Unit at the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center offers a comprehensive cancer risk assessment program that can help you understand your cancer risks and review your options for managing that cancer risk.

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