Most cancers do not run in families, but only affect one individual. Usually, other people in their family are no more at risk of developing cancer than anyone else. However, in a small number of all patients with cancer, there may be a familial tendency to develop cancer. At present, the clue that this may be the case comes from looking at someone's family tree, and seeing that several close relatives have all had cancer or have been affected at young ages.
What is a cancer family history clinic?
The main reason for the clinic is to see people with cancer in their family and to discuss whether this increases their own risk of developing cancer. If it does, we would discuss what is available to help. This may include regular screening tests (such as a mammogram or a bowel examination, depending on the cancer in the family) and sometimes a genetic test. The clinic also helps us to learn more about cancer in families and puts us in touch with families who might be interested in helping with research in the future.
What happens at the clinic?
A doctor or genetic counsellor specialising in cancer genetics will see you. They will draw out your family tree to see how different family members are related. It would be helpful if you could bring with you as much detail as you can about your relatives (especially those with cancer) such as:
If you have documents such as death certificates, these would also be helpful. (In some instances, you may be contacted before the clinic and asked to send back a questionnaire with this information.) We may then be able to give you an idea of how likely it is that a cancer gene fault is in the family. If so, we will discuss how this will affect you, whether there are any tests which should be offered to you and anything else you can do to help yourself. Sometimes, this is still at the stage of research but we will let you know what is likely to become possible in the future. Occasionally, we cannot tell you much at the first meeting as we may need to get more information on relatives and so we may require to see you again.
For most people there is no simple test to look for cancer gene faults. However, we are starting to learn more about these genes and may ask whether a relative who has had cancer may be willing to give a blood sample. If we do find a gene fault in this way, it may become possible to offer some people in the family a blood test but this would be fully discussed in the clinic as not everyone will want to be tested.
If you have any queries please contact Cancer Genetic Counsellors at
Cancer Genetics, Level 2 Laboratory Medicine Building, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow, G51 4TF. Tel: 0141 354 9201