If you are worried about your family’s history of cancer

Most cancers aren’t caused by inherited cancer genes. If you think you may have a higher risk of cancer, because other people in your family have had it, talk to your GP. Our online tool OPERA can give you information about your risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. You may want to take this information to your GP. They will ask you questions about your family, to help find out if there might be an increased risk. If your GP thinks you may have an increased risk in your family, they can talk to you about your options. These may include arranging for you to talk to a genetics expert about your situation.

A genetics expert may suggest that you have a genetic test to see if there is an inherited cancer gene in your family. They may also suggest that you have screening tests for cancer. They may decide that you don’t have a higher risk and don’t need to do anything at all.

Talk to your GP

You may want to tell your GP if:

  • two or more blood relatives on the same side of your family have developed the same type of cancer at a fairly young age (under 50)
  • certain pairs of cancers run together in your family, such as bowel and womb cancer, or breast and ovarian cancer
  • you have a relative who developed breast, ovarian, bowel or womb cancer at a younger age than usual.

If your GP thinks there may be an increased risk of cancer in your family, they will refer you to a genetic counsellor or a cancer specialist. This could be in a family cancer clinic or a cancer genetics clinic.

You could try to speak directly to a specialist at your nearest family cancer clinic or genetics clinic. However, specialists usually prefer to see people who have been referred by their GP. You can find a list of all genetic centres in the NHS on the British Society for Human Genetics website.

Your GP, genetic counsellor or consultant will use a number of criteria in your family history to assess whether there may be an inherited cancer susceptibility gene in your family.

If you’re worried that breast and/or ovarian cancer may run in your family, our online tool OPERA can give you personalised information about your risk, which you might want to take to your doctor to discuss.

OPERA is based on guidance on familial breast cancer from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). OPERA isn’t intended to replace professional genetic counselling services, so if you’re concerned about your genetic risk you should still consult your doctor.

After referral to a genetics clinic

If your GP refers you to a genetics clinic, you’ll probably have to wait for a few weeks or months before you’re seen by a specialist.

It’s important to remember that even if you do have an increased risk, you’re not in immediate danger of developing cancer. Your cancer risk won’t change over a few weeks or months. However, if you’re finding this waiting period difficult, you can contact our cancer support specialists to talk it through.

The genetics clinic or family cancer clinic will look at your GP’s referral and information about your family history. They may decide that you’re not at an increased risk of developing cancer after all. The staff may write to you and ask for your consent to check your relatives’ healthcare records to find the specific type of cancer they had. It may then turn out that your family history isn’t exactly what you thought it was (for example, if what you thought was an ovarian cancer was actually a cervical cancer). This may mean that there’s no clear pattern of inherited cancers in your family.

In cases like this, the family cancer or genetics clinic may decide that you don’t need to be seen. The regional genetics centre or your GP should tell you if this decision has been made. However, sometimes this doesn’t happen. So, if after a few months you haven’t heard from your GP or the regional genetics centre about your referral, it’s worth checking with your GP.

If the genetic specialists decide that you don’t need to see them, their letter to you should include a phone number you can call to discuss the reasons for this decision. If you have any questions about how they reached their decision, and what this means for your cancer risk, feel free to call them and speak to a genetic specialist over the phone.

In summary, having looked at your referral and your family history, a genetic counsellor or consultant may suggest one of the following actions:

  • not to do anything
  • to talk to other relatives
  • to have screening
  • to have a genetic test.

Back to Family history

Cancer and genes

Changes (mutations) in some genes can cause cells to grow in an uncontrolled way, forming tumours.

Genes and how they work

Genes are passed down to us from our biological parents. They affect how our bodies look, grow and work.