Inherited cancers

You can’t inherit cancer from someone in your family. However, you can inherit a higher risk of developing a certain cancer through your genes. Some families have an inherited gene mutation that can increase the risk of developing certain cancers, compared to the general population. There are only a few cancer susceptibility genes that doctors can test for at the moment, such as those linked with breast, ovarian, bowel and womb cancers. More research is going on all the time.

Other families may have a slightly increased risk of cancer caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. Also, some rare hereditary conditions are linked with an increased risk of some cancer types. These include:

  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL)
  • endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2)
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome.

Even if you do have a cancer susceptibility gene that means you have a higher risk of developing certain cancers, it doesn’t mean that you will definitely get cancer. If you are worried about your family history, talk to your GP.

Inherited cancer susceptibility genes

If a cancer occurs more frequently in a family than would be expected in the general population, this may be a sign that some people in the family have inherited a cancer susceptibility gene. In many cancers, it’s thought that about 5-10% of cases (between 5-10 out of every 100 cases) may be linked to inherited cancers.

Scientists have discovered cancer susceptibility genes for some of the more common cancers that can run in families, such as cancers of the breast, bowel, ovary and womb. There are other cancers, such as prostate, pancreatic and testicular cancer, which may run in families but specific cancer susceptibility genes for these cancers haven’t been identified yet.

Sometimes there are a number of different types of cancers in a family. Usually these cancers are unrelated and are due to the effects of a combination of risk factors such as age, lifestyle and the environment. But in some cases, when certain pairs of cancers run together in a family, such as bowel and womb cancer, or breast and ovarian cancer, it can be a sign of an inherited susceptibility gene.

There are also some very rare inherited gene mutations that increase a person’s risk of getting several different types of cancer at a young age. In families that have these cancer susceptibility genes several people may be diagnosed with cancer in childhood, adolescence or in their twenties or thirties.

If someone has an inherited cancer susceptibility gene, they have a significantly increased risk of developing certain cancers compared to other people in the population. In most cases, people who inherit a cancer susceptibility gene won’t definitely get cancer. You can’t inherit cancer from someone in your family, but you might inherit an increased risk of developing a certain type of cancer.

In many families with higher than expected numbers of cancers, the cancers aren’t caused by a  cancer susceptibility gene. It’s thought that for some families, the increased risk may be caused by several genes which, in combination with lifestyle and environmental risk factors, affect the risk of developing certain cancers. These genes have a weaker effect on the risk of cancer than cancer susceptibility genes so they are sometimes called 'low risk' genes or ‘low penetrance’ genes.

Only a few low penetrance genes have been identified so far, but  there aren’t tests available for checking if someone has them.  Researchers are trying to find out more about what these genes are, and how, in combination with lifestyle and environmental factors, they might affect an individual’s cancer risk.

Common types of inherited cancer

Other types of inherited cancer

There are some rare hereditary conditions associated with an increased risk of less common types of cancer, including:

  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL), which causes an increased risk of cysts or tumours in the brain and spinal cord, eyes and ears, kidneys, adrenal glands and pancreas
  • multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2), which causes a susceptibility to a rare type of thyroid cancer (medullary) and to cancers of the adrenal glands
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which causes a susceptibility to several cancers, including breast cancers, sarcomas, brain tumours and leukaemias. Affected families often have several people in the family affected at a young age (children, adolescents or young adults).

If you or a member of your family are affected by a rare genetic condition, you may want to get in touch with Genetic Alliance UK for information and support on coping with rare genetic disorders. We also have information on rare cancers.

If you would like to know more contact, our cancer support specialists or a support group for people with cancer.

Scientists and doctors also believe that genetic factors may be involved in causing a susceptibility to testicular, pancreatic, prostate, stomach and kidney cancer in a small number of people. If some of these cancers occur together in a family with bowel cancer, they may be connected to Lynch syndrome.

BRCA1 and BRCA2, the breast cancer genes, have been linked to cases of prostate and pancreatic cancer in some families. But Lynch syndrome, BRCA1 and BRCA2 don't account for all the cases where one of the above cancers occurs in a number of family members. So it's likely that there are other genes which are responsible for the situations where two or more members of the same family get the same type of cancer. Researchers are working to identify these genes.

It's highly unlikely that one case of testicular, pancreatic, prostate, stomach or kidney cancer significantly increases other family members' risk of developing the same cancer. We can only assume that an inherited gene may be involved if at least two relatives develop the same type of cancer.

There may be screening available for some of these cancers. If you are worried about a lot of cases of these (or other) cancers in your family, you should talk to your GP. If there's the possibility of a genetic factor playing a role in your family, you may be able to take part in a research study. You will also be told what symptoms to look out for to identify cancer, if it occurs, as early as possible.

Back to Genetic conditions and inherited cancers

Inherited cancers: prostate cancer

Some cases of prostate cancer are linked to certain inherited cancer genes, which can run in families. There are other risks, some of which can be reduced.

Lynch syndrome

Lynch syndrome (LS) is a condition that can run in families. It increases the risk of developing 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 a cancer gene.

OPERA tool

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

Having a high risk of cancer

Knowing you have an increased risk of cancer can be difficult. There are options for managing the risk and getting support.