Stay on Top of Your Family History of Cancer

People who are at high risk of cancer as a result of their family history may be advised to undergo earlier or more intensive cancer screening. Because family history of cancer can change over time, it’s important to update this information periodically with your healthcare provider. This was the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Cancer screening involves the use of tests to detect cancer at an early stage in people with no symptoms of the disease. Commonly used screening tests include mammography for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer, and the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test for prostate cancer.

People who are at high risk of a particular cancer as a result of their personal or family medical history may be advised to undergo earlier or more frequent cancer screening, or to be screened with more sensitive tests. Women who have a high risk of breast cancer, for example, are often advised to begin screening at an earlier age than other women, and to be screened with both mammography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Family history of cancer can change over time, and changes in family history may affect which screening tests and schedules are recommended. To explore how often this occurs, researchers collected information from a large database of US adults with a personal and/or family history of cancer.

  • The number of people who were candidates for high-risk colorectal cancer screening as a result of family history increased from 2.1% at age 30 to 7.1% at age 50.
  • The number of people who were candidates for high-risk breast cancer screening as a result of family history increased from 7.2% at age 30 to 11.4% at age 50.
  • The numbers for prostate cancer were smaller, but increased from 0.9% at age 30 to 2.0% at age 50.

These results suggest that family history of cancer (and the screening recommendations that may stem from family history) can change significantly during adulthood. The researchers recommend that healthcare providers collect updated family history information from patients at least every five to ten years.

Reference: Ziogas A, Horick NK, Kinney AY et al. Clinically relevant changes in family history of cancer over time. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2011; 306:172-178.

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