Genetic risk for certain cancers runs in families, dramatically increasing a person’s lifetime risk for developing cancer. Discovering a high risk for cancer can be intimidating, but if you know you’re at risk, you can take steps to to get ahead of cancer.
Through preventative action, many hereditary cancers can be caught early and treated quickly, or even avoided almost entirely. The first step is learning about your personal risk for cancer.
"To be able to know and get ahead of cancer is everything. It is literally everything." - Hannah, carrier of a high-risk BRCA1 variant, Cancer Previvor
Managing cancer risk
If you’re worried about your risk of cancer, you’re probably already taking action to stay healthy. Activities like eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and dropping habits like smoking and tanning can help reduce anyone’s risk of developing cancer. While lifestyle choices are an important factor in cancer risk, some risk factors are built into a person’s genetics. If cancer seems to run in your family, learning about your genes can give you options to potentially stop cancer before it starts.
Annual checkups including pap smears and mammograms are an important part of regular care, but they usually only catch cancer once it is already present. Knowing your personal cancer risk can help give you a head start on targeted screening and prevention. Up to 25% of family health histories in the women’s health setting meet guidelines for high cancer risk1, giving you and your family the choice to do genetic testing and access additional preventative care options before cancer occurs.
Finding out that you carry a change in a gene associated with cancer can be scary, but many high-risk gene variant carriers find comfort and strength in taking action. When you know your risk, you can take proactive steps to protect your health and help prevent cancer. People who take these steps are known as cancer previvors.
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have this information. I can be a previvor. I can take control of my health now and lower my risk of ever having to deal with uterine or colon cancer like every woman in my maternal line has so far.” - Jen, Lynch Syndrome variant carrier, Cancer Previvor
The genetics of cancer
Sometimes genes undergo small changes that impact the way they function. If these changes impact the activity of genes involved in critical processes, like immune function or tumor suppression, they can play a major role in cancer development or other diseases. Activities like smoking or excessive UV exposure increase the risk of cancer because they can cause damage to our genes.
In some situations, changes in genes can be passed down from generation to generation. A specific genetic change is called a variant. Hereditary cancer occurs when a person inherits a risk-increasing gene variant from their parents that can lead to a tumor. Hereditary cancers make up 5-10% of all cancers and often occur at younger ages or with greater severity than other cancers.2
Many gene variants have the ability to impact a person’s health, including their risk of developing certain cancers. Genetic testing for hereditary cancer looks for gene variants that researchers have identified as increasing a person’s risk for specific types of cancer. Sometimes this information can help inform treatment if a person already has cancer. In other cases it helps people prevent cancer from occurring at all.
Becoming a cancer previvor
It can be overwhelming news when someone learns that they have an increased risk of hereditary cancer. Fortunately, many resources are available to help people with genetic cancer risk navigate next steps and protect their health. A previvor is a person with a hereditary risk for cancer that takes steps to prevent cancer from occurring. Previvors use their genetic findings to empower themselves and their families for healthier futures.
Hannah and Katie are sisters and previvors who lost their mother to breast cancer when they were young. As adults, they both learned that they had the high-risk BRCA1 gene variant, which likely caused their mother’s cancer. Already mothers themselves, both sisters opted for risk-reducing surgeries to help protect their health.
"I did it for my children, to make sure they knew I was going to be around for them, because my mom wasn't for me." - Katie, carrier of a high-risk BRCA1 variant, Cancer Previvor
Cancer prevention comes in many forms
While there is no 100% foolproof way to prevent cancer, in many situations, a person can take steps to reduce their risk of cancer, sometimes drastically. For example, the high-risk gene variants of BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase a person’s lifetime risk of breast cancer from an average of 13% to >60%.3 A procedure called a full mastectomy removes the breast tissue and dramatically decreases a person’s lifetime risk of breast cancer.3 After consulting with their clinicians, many BRCA1 and BRCA2 high-risk variant carriers opt for this procedure to become breast cancer previvors. Others choose to engage in more frequent screening to help catch developing cancer as early as possible, when it is most treatable.
In other situations, surgical prevention may not be desired, practical, or possible. High-risk variants within genes MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, and EPCAM, are associated with Lynch syndrome, which increases risk of colorectal, uterine, and ovarian cancer, among others. Previvors of Lynch syndrome can engage in earlier and more frequent screenings and take medications that can help reduce their colorectal cancer risk. Many previvors also have more frequent uterine and ovarian screenings, and may choose to have a hysterectomy and/or oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) to reduce risk further.
Knowledge brings options
Becoming a previvor doesn’t always mean going straight to surgery. Concrete knowledge about cancer risk can help drive important lifestyle changes and in some cases open up opportunities for medications that can help reduce risk. Many high-risk gene variant carriers qualify for more frequent screening for the cancers they’re at risk for, intending to catch any developing tumor early and have more tailored options for treatment if one is found. Others choose surgical intervention, but do it on their timeline, postponing risk-reducing surgery until after they’ve had children.
Knowing about your genetic cancer risk enables you to choose the best path forward for your life and health, and gives you more options to personalize your prevention strategy.
“I have a chance to take actionable steps. I don’t have to wait for things to happen to me. I get to decide whether or not I know as much as I can and whether or not I do as much as I can.” - Megan, Lynch syndrome variant carrier, cancer previvor
Cancer survivors inspiring previvors
Unfortunately, many people with hereditary cancer only learn about their genetic predisposition after a cancer diagnosis—sometimes when cancer is already late-stage and spreading, and treatment options are more limited. They often report wishing that they’d known their risk sooner so that they could have been better prepared, had more tailored treatment options, and been able to take proactive prevention steps.
When Amy, a breast cancer survivor, learned that she carries the BRCA1 high-risk gene variant, she decided to have her remaining breast tissue removed to reduce her risk of recurrence. If she had known about her genetic status during her initial diagnosis, she would have had the full risk-reducing surgery then and had more options for her cancer treatment. She’s encouraged everyone in her family to get testing, and hopes that her daughters will choose to get genetic testing when they’re older, so that they’d have a chance to be previvors.
"Knowing that I have the mutation, knowing how it can affect me, knowing that it can affect my kids—it does make me stronger. That's why I tell everybody I know, go get tested.” - Amy, carrier of a high-risk BRCA1 variant, Breast Cancer Survivor
How can I learn about my risk of hereditary cancer?
If cancer seems to run in your family, or you are simply curious about what your genes hold, genetic testing can help you learn if you have a gene variant that could increase your risk of developing cancer.
The Empower™ Hereditary Cancer Test screens your DNA for a wide range of gene variants that are known to impact risk for multiple kinds of cancer. It helps people learn more about their genetic cancer risk so they can work with their doctor to identify strategies to help prevent cancer and become previvors.
Talk to your doctor about your family history of cancer, and start a conversation about if genetic testing with Empower could be right for you.
“It’s simple to get the genetic testing blood work done. Why not be a previvor?” - Katie, carrier of a high-risk BRCA1 variant, Cancer Previvor
1Bucheit L, et al. Opportunity for Cancer Prevention: 1 in 4 Unaffected Women Meet Hereditary Cancer Testing Criteria [26O].Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2019;133:169. doi:10.1097/01.AOG.0000558886.82287.e9
2Anand P, et al. Cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes. Pharm Res. 2008;25(9):2097-2116. doi:10.1007/s11095-008-9661-9
3BRCA Gene Mutations: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing Fact Sheet. National Cancer Institute. Published November 25, 2020. Accessed August 4, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet