Coping with a high risk of cancer

If you have a family history of cancer, you might be told that your family may carry a genetic mutation. This means that it is more likely that you or other relatives might develop cancer. You may find it difficult to cope with. You may feel uncertain and worried about your future. Or you may feel relieved to know and to be able to consider your options.

Even if you do have a genetic mutation, this doesn’t definitely mean that you will develop cancer. Talking to family, friends and professionals about how you feel may be helpful.

If you are worried about your risk of cancer, you can talk to your healthcare team. They can talk to you about options to manage or reduce the risk. These can include screening for early signs of cancer, or risk-reducing surgery.

Coping with a high risk of cancer

Due to your family history, you might be told that your family may carry a genetic mutation. This makes it more likely that you or other relatives might get cancer.

You might fall into any of the categories below:

  • You might have had a genetic test that showed you have a gene mutation.
  • You might have decided not to get tested, but you have a strong family history that suggests a genetic cause for the cancers in your family.
  • You might not have been able to have a genetic test because you don’t have a living relative with that cancer who could be tested.
  • You might not have been able to be tested because genetic testing is not available for the type of cancer that runs in your family (for example, testicular cancer).
  • You might have had a genetic test that didn’t find a mutation. But, because of your family history, you have still been advised that your family is considered as having a high risk of developing a certain cancer.

Coming to terms with the knowledge that you and some members of your family have a higher than average cancer risk can be difficult.

Some people say that being told about their high risk felt like finding out that they had cancer already. The only question in their mind was ‘When will it happen to me?’

Others say they felt as if history was repeating itself, with people in every new generation getting cancer, and bringing suffering and bereavement to the whole family.

Other people say that after the initial shock, they felt relieved that they’d found out about their risk. They say that the facts are less scary than the fear they had before. They felt better knowing everything there is to know, even if it is limited knowledge.

Living with uncertainty

We are only just beginning to understand the role of genetics in cancer. However, identifying cancer susceptibility genes doesn’t give us all the answers. Genetic testing doesn’t tell us who will definitely get cancer, or when.

This can cause anxiety. It’s natural to want to know what is likely to happen to us, so that we can plan for our future. However, often definite answers aren’t possible so you may have to find ways of living with uncertainty.

Your family and other sources of support

Living with the threat of cancer in your family can be very difficult. Talking about your feelings and worries may help.

If you find it difficult to talk to your relatives or partner, it may help to get support from people outside your family, such as a genetic counsellor or a friend.

Relationships in your family can feel complicated or tense when you’re coping with inherited cancer risk. If genetic tests have identified some family members who are at an increased risk and some who aren’t, people may feel guilty or ashamed for different reasons. It’s important to acknowledge that hereditary cancer can be a difficult issue to come to terms with.

Some people say that their relationships and family ties became stronger after they discovered the problems their family was facing and began working through them together. You may feel that you can rely on your family for support more than you could before.

Many people say that knowing about the cancer risk in their family has allowed them to make appropriate decisions to increase their own and their children’s chances of good health.

Some people keep a simple record of their family’s health and major illnesses, so that this information is available for their children or other relatives if they ever need it.

Early detection of cancer – screening

Screening means checking for early signs of cancer or looking for cell changes that happen before a cancer develops. There are different screening techniques for different types of cancer. Some types of screening such as bowel screening can pick up precancerous cell changes so that they can be treated before cancer develops. However, most types of cancer screening pick up cancers at an earlier stage when they can be treated more effectively.

Reducing your risk of cancer


Some people with a high cancer risk decide to have risk-reducing surgery. This means removing the tissues which are at risk of getting cancer, for example the breasts or ovaries. This type of surgery is only offered to people with a very high risk, such as those who have certain types of cancer susceptibility genes. Surgery greatly reduces, but does not entirely get rid of, the risk of cancer.

No one can tell you whether risk-reducing surgery is the right or wrong thing for you to do. It's an entirely personal choice and may depend on:

  • your age
  • whether you know for sure that you have a genetic mutation
  • how you feel
  • whether you still want to have children (for example, in the case of removal of the ovaries or womb).

If you are considering this option, you can take your time over the decision and get help and advice from doctors and counsellors. It's helpful to discuss the advantages and disadvantages with your doctor, family and other people you trust before making your decision.

Research trials

If you know that you have an increased risk of getting cancer, you may be offered the opportunity to join research trials. These look into genetic causes of cancer or ways of preventing it. For example, different drugs are being used to try to reduce inherited breast and bowel cancer risk. These are known as chemoprevention trials. Whether you take part in a research trial is completely up to you.

We have information about research trials that you may find helpful.

Health and lifestyle

Many people who find that they are at an increased risk of cancer look for ways they can improve their health and lifestyle. Some people say this makes them feel they are doing whatever they can to control their risk of cancer.

Back to Genetic conditions and inherited cancers

Inherited cancers

If a cancer occurs more often in a family than in the general population, some people in the family may have inherited a cancer susceptibility gene.

Lynch syndrome

Lynch syndrome (LS) is a condition that can run in families. It increases the risk of bowel, womb and some other cancers.

Genetic counselling

A genetic consultation is a discussion with a person trained in genetics. They will advise you on your risk of developing cancer.

Genetic testing

You will only be offered genetic testing if your family history suggests you may have inherited an identified faulty gene.

OPERA tool

OPERA is an online information tool for people concerned about their inherited risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer.