Inherited cancers

You can’t inherit cancer from someone in your family. However, you can inherit a cancer gene that may increase your risk of developing certain cancers. There are only a few inherited cancer genes that doctors can test for at the moment, including those linked with breast, ovarian, bowel and womb cancers. More research is happening all the time.

Other families may have a slightly increased risk of cancer caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors.

Some rare hereditary conditions are also linked with an increased risk of some cancer types. These include:

  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL)
  • endochrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1)
  • endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2)
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome.

Having an inherited cancer gene doesn’t mean that you will definitely get cancer. If you are worried about your family history, talk to your GP.

Common inherited cancers

Other inherited cancers

There are some rare inherited cancer genes that increase the risk of less common types of cancer. These include:

  • familial gastric cancer
  • familial melanoma, which may be linked with abnormal skin moles and sometimes with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer
  • 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 1 (MEN1), which is linked to tumours in the parathyroid and pituitary glands and the digestive system – the tumours are often non-cancerous (benign)
  • multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2), which is linked to medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) and to tumours of the adrenal glands – MTC may develop in infants and young children
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which causes an increased risk of several cancers, including breast cancers, sarcomas, brain tumours and leukaemias – in families with Li-Fraumeni several members of the family may have developed cancer 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. You can also call the Macmillan Support line on 0808 808 00 00.

Doctors believe that, in a small number of people, gene mutations may increase the risk of some other types of cancer. These include cancers of the testicle, pancreas, prostate, stomach and kidney.

When these cancers happen together with bowel cancer, they may be connected to Lynch syndrome. Some families with BRCA2 gene mutations also have a higher prostate cancer or pancreatic cancer risk.

But it’s likely that there are other genes that may cause an increase in the number of these cancers in some families. Researchers are trying to identify these genes.

It’s unlikely that having one relative with testicular, pancreatic, prostate, stomach or kidney cancer greatly increases other family members’ risk of developing the same cancer. But there may be an inherited gene if at least two relatives on the same side of the family develop the same type of cancer.

If you’re worried about several cases of these, or other cancers in your family, talk to your GP. If there’s a possibility there could be a cancer gene in your family, you may be able to take part in a research study. You will be told if there is a type of screening that may help to detect that cancer early. You will also be told what symptoms to look out for. This can help you to find cancer earlier if it does happen.