If you are worried about cancer
Many people worry about getting cancer, sometimes because a relative has had it.
How does family history affect cancer risk?
Most cancers aren’t caused by inherited cancer genes. If one or two of your relatives have had cancer, this doesn’t necessarily mean there is a cancer gene in your family.
In general, the more members of your family who have been diagnosed with the same type of cancer, and the younger they were when diagnosed, the more likely it is that there’s a family link.
It's only likely that a cancer gene is present in your family if:
One of your first-degree relatives has had two different types of cancer (this means they’ve had two separate cancers, not one cancer that spread somewhere else). First-degree relatives are your parents, children, brothers and sisters.
Two or more closely related people in your family have had the same type of cancer, or have had types of cancer that are sometimes connected (breast cancer and ovarian cancer are sometimes connected, and so are bowel cancer and womb cancer).
Members of your family have had cancer at an unusually young age (for example, bowel or breast cancer under the age of 40).
If you’re worried about a history of cancer in your family, talk to your GP. They may be able to reassure you or refer you to a clinical genetics service or family cancer clinic.
People with a strong family history of some types of cancer (bowel or breast cancer) are offered earlier or more frequent screening than other people.
There are tests for changes (alterations) in genes that increase the risk of getting breast, ovarian or bowel cancer, as well as some rarer cancers.
If you have a strong family history of one of these cancers, you may be offered a test to check if there is an inherited cancer gene in your family. Genetic testing is normally only possible if you have a relative with one of these cancers who is willing to be tested first.
We have specific information which might be helpful if you are worried about:
If you are still worried
A common reaction to serious illness in the family, or to bereavement, is to feel more vulnerable to the same disease. If you can’t stop worrying, you may find it helpful to speak to a counsellor. You can ask your GP for details of a local counselling service, or contact our cancer support specialists.
The mental health charity MIND has a leaflet called How to Stop Worrying. Order a copy from their website or by calling 0300 123 3393.