News | Published August 15, 2013 | Written by Aileen S. Galley, ACSW, LSW, administrative director, Cancer Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center, former chair of the Pink Zone Committee

Is cancer hereditary in my family?

“Does cancer run in your family?” This is a question that may be asked to determine whether related cancers develop among family members. Cancer can appear to “run in your family” through a shared environment, like exposure to asbestos in one's home. It can be linked in families by health behaviors, like tobacco use. In some instances, cancer can be caused by an inherited mutation.

Genetic testing looks for specific inherited mutations – or changes – in a person’s chromosomes, genes or proteins. These mutations can have a harmful, beneficial, questionable or nonexistent effect on a person’s health, but do play a major role in the development of about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Genetic counseling can help you decide whether it is indicated for you to consider genetic testing. It also helps you determine if this is the right decision for you. Genetic counselors are licensed in Pennsylvania and provide an evaluation of your personal cancer risks and a discussion of genetic testing (if appropriate) to go over its risks, benefits and limitations.

Genetic counseling includes a detailed assessment of your personal and family medical history related to possible cancer risk. During the counseling session, a genetic counselor will discuss:

  • Whether genetic testing is appropriate, and if so, the specific test(s) that may be used and their accuracy
  • The significance of a positive or a negative test result
  • The possibility that a test result may not provide you with the information you need to help you make healthcare decisions
  • The psychological risks and benefits of learning your genetic test results
  • The risk of passing a genetic mutation to children

If you decide to have genetic cancer testing performed and you have a positive test result, it does not mean that you will absolutely develop cancer; however, it will allow you to take steps to lower your risk of developing cancer (such as changing personal behaviors related to smoking or exercise), or it may help you find any abnormalities earlier (by regularly checking for signs of cancer). Your genetic counselor will help determine any possible next steps. For those with increased risk, the genetic counselor may share the options of enhanced surveillance, chemo prevention or prophylactic surgery.

For patients who have already been diagnosed with cancer, a positive result for a mutation associated with certain hereditary cancer syndromes can affect the way their cancer is treated.

Mount Nittany Health offers genetic cancer counseling and testing. Community members who are interested in genetic counseling to determine if genetic cancer testing is appropriate can call 1.800.243.1455 ext. 1631 or visit for more information.