Genetics and Cancer

Approximately 10 percent of all cancers are hereditary, which means they are caused by a damaged cancer-fighting gene inherited from your mother or father, one that can be passed on to your children. The remaining 90 percent of cancers are sporadic and can be caused by a variety of factors – environmental exposures, lifestyle habits, or some influence that scientists and doctors have yet to discover. Cancer is complicated. Even with all of the medical advances we have made, doctors still cannot pin-point exactly what causes a person’s cancer.

Having a hereditary cancer syndrome does not mean someone will definitely get a cancer; rather it means that they are at an increased risk to develop cancers throughout their lives. Knowing your risk for developing cancer—and doing everything you can to lower it—can make a big difference for you, your family and your future healthcare decisions. Genetic counseling and testing enable you to make educated decisions when choosing treatment options, making lifestyle choices to maintain health or even exploring preventative surgeries.

Hereditary cancer and sporadic cancer act differently in families. Sporadic cancers tend to occur at older ages (remember, aging is the Number One risk factor), and will happen randomly within a family tree. Hereditary cancers seem to affect multiple generations, with similar or connected cancers affecting family members and occurring at younger ages, usually under 50.

BRCA and Beyond

You might have heard of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can greatly influence a woman’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are among the many cancer-fighting genes that we all have. But when these genes are faulty, broken or mutated in some way, they can increase cancer risk. We can inherit these genes already broken from either our mother or father (who inherited the mutations from their mother or father, who got them from their mother or father, and so on).

Certainly, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most well-known and well-studied genes related to breast and ovarian cancer. Until as recently as 2013, they were essentially the only genes you could be tested for to determine whether you or a relative were predisposed to breast cancer. But as technology and science have evolved, testing has expanded to include an additional 18 genes related to breast and ovarian cancer. Because the field of genetics has expanded and evolved so rapidly, even if someone was negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2 in the past, they may want to consider being re-evaluated and retested using the larger panel.

What is Genetic Counseling?

A genetic counselor is a healthcare professional with specialized graduate-level training in medical genetics and counseling. Armed with all of the most up-to-date information on new genes, associated cancer risks, and health-insurance regulations, the genetic counselor can guide you through every step of the evaluation, and if need be, the genetic-testing process. Testing is not required following a genetics consult.

A genetic counselor will review your personal medical history to identify any individual risk factors, such as pregnancy history, smoking history, how much you exercise, and of course whether you have had cancer before. They will also take a detailed family history for both your mother’s AND your father’s sides of the family (They are both equally important!). This allows the genetic counselor to get a bigger picture of your personal family, and to see if the cancers may be hereditary or sporadic.

Each unique genetic result, combined with each unique family history, provides a clear picture of your genetic risk for developing cancer, as well as an individualized care plan to stop that cancer in its tracks.

Genetic Counseling on the Sun Coast

Sarasota Memorial Hospital is home to the only Certified Genetic Counselor between Tampa and Fort Meyers. Nicole Wood joined the SMH team in February and sees patients at the SMH Main Campus Monday through Friday. In addition to Wood, SMH has a Genetics ARNP, Maggi Tabano, who sees patients in Bradenton and Venice on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more information on the Genetic Education Program at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, please visit or read up on our cancer blog posts by SMH Genetic Counselor Nicole Wood at

To make an appointment with an SMH genetic counselor or get your hereditary-cancer questions answered, please call Sarasota Memorial’s Genetic Education program at 941-917-2005.


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