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Knowing your cancer risk can empower you and your family members

Genetic counselors can help assess your risk and develop a tailored cancer screening and surveillance program.
Clinical Nurse Specialist Denise Musser (right) believes understanding your family’s health history is key to identifying your genetic risk for certain cancers, including colon cancer. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

You might notice the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis lit up in blue colors this month in observance of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

For those people who are of “average risk” and over 50, the bridge lighting is a great reminder to have your colon cancer screening done so you can check it off your “to-do” list for the first quarter of the year. But there are many other people who come to the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Risk Management Program who may be at heightened risk for cancer because of family genetics or other factors.

These visitors often arrive seeking information about their personal risk. Having a higher risk for colon cancer indicates a need for a stronger surveillance program than the average person in the general population.

Family history is important because there are some hereditary cancer syndromes who can be identified within the layout of your family tree. Concerns about familial colorectal cancer—and other familial cancers—can be best addressed with a cancer genetic counselor that can review your family history. They can evaluate your health information and your family’s health background and give you sound advice. They can also help you identify whether you may have a hereditary cancer syndrome in your family and what can be done to manage your risk.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have a first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister or child) who was diagnosed with any of the following conditions prior to age 50?
    • Colon or rectal cancer
    • Cancer of the uterus, stomach, ovary, small intestine, urinary tract (kidney, ureter, bladder), bile ducts, pancreas or brain
  • Have you been diagnosed with any of the following conditions prior to age 50?
    • Colon or rectal cancer
    • Colon or rectal polyps
  • Do you have three or more relatives with a history of colon or rectal cancer? (This includes parents, brothers, sisters, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.)

Genetic counseling can help identify cancer syndromes that can run in families, such as Lynch Syndrome, formerly known as Hereditary Non-polyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC). It is estimated that roughly one in 660 to one in 2,000 people have Lynch syndrome.

It’s important to know if this runs in your family because Lynch syndrome may put you at heightened risk of several types of cancers. If you know you’re at risk, you can reduce your risk with appropriate screening and surveillance.

People with Lynch syndrome have an increased risk of colon cancer. For that reason, it’s important for individuals with Lynch syndrome to have colonoscopies for colon cancer screening so that the precancerous polyps in the colon can be removed before they progress to cancer. Women with the syndrome have an elevated risk for ovarian and endometrial cancers.

The key to success in cancer treatment is early detection. Without early screening and surveillance, we lose that opportunity. Screening for Lynch patients often begins at age 20—far earlier than the recommended screening age for the general population.

Learn more about our colon cancer screening services, or schedule a colonoscopy.

It’s important to know if Lynch syndrome runs in your family because you can take active steps to significantly reduce your cancer risks. In addition, genetic testing can identify family members who are and are not at increased cancer risk.

Our Cancer Risk Management Program helps to coordinate appropriate care, screening and surveillance with a plan that is tailored for each individual needs, based on nationally accepted screening guidelines.

Learn more about the University of Minnesota Health Cancer Risk Management Program.