Can I inherit cancer from my family members?

Cancer is by far the most frightening disease in the world With And not only because of its seriousness, the fear that evokes concomitant treatments and therapies or – at the moment – the lack of a cure, but because it is very common. In fact, statistics show that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime.

About 18 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed worldwide each year. This means that, with a simple probability, each of us has had to live, more or less close, with this terrible disease.

We all know a more or less close relative who has suffered from cancer, which is why we are all drowned at some point by the question, “What if I inherited cancer?” The concept that cancer is a hereditary disease is a fact taken with a grain of salt. And it is that, although there is some truth in this statement, we are leaving aside many nuances.

Therefore, in today’s article we will analyze to what extent it is true that cancer is an inherited disease. Because, despite sometimes leading us to believe the opposite, only 5% to 10% of cancers can be inherited from family members With And, moreover, having the predisposition gene is not a punishment for suffering from the disease.

What is cancer?

Before analyzing its supposed inheritance, we need to understand what exactly cancer is With Cancer is a disease that, if not applied and therapy and therapy, is fatal. It consists of an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in our body.

But why are they out of control? This abnormal development of cells is due to mutations in their genetic material, which can occur by simple biological coincidence or be motivated by the damage we cause (smoking, inhalation of toxic products, their exposure to solar radiation, drinking alcohol …). And by mutation we mean a situation in which the sequence of nucleotides in our DNA changes.

This sequence of nucleotides is what determines the normal functioning of the cell. And with each division, it is relatively common for DNA-replicating enzymes to make mistakes, that is, to insert the wrong nucleotide. Over time, errors accumulate. And it is possible for the cell’s DNA to be so different from the original that it loses the ability to control the degree of its division.

When this happens and the cell is unable to regulate its reproductive rhythm, they begin to divide too much, lose their functionality and invade nearby tissues, creating a mass of cells that lack the physiological or structural properties of the original cells. .

This strange mass of cells is called a tumor. When this tumor does not affect health, stays in place, does not cause damage and does not migrate to other areas of the body, we are dealing with what is known as a benign tumor.

But in a more or less large percentage of cases, this cell mass can cause damage, affect the functionality of organs and tissues, spread to different areas of the body and, ultimately, endanger a person’s life. In this case we are dealing with a malignant tumor, better known as cancer.

Any group of cells in our body can develop these mutations, but they are more common in those that divide more (the more they divide, the more likely they are to accumulate genetic errors) and / or more exposed to damage. , whether of hormonal origin or from exposure to carcinogenic substances, namely products that damage cells in such a way that the chances of them undergoing dangerous mutations increase.

There are more than 200 different types of cancer In any case, 13 out of 18 million new cases are one of the 20 most common types of cancer (lung, breast, colorectal, prostate, skin, stomach, liver … ). In fact, lung and breast cancer alone already represent 25% of all those diagnosed.

But in the face of this situation, the question inevitably arises: Are all these cancers hereditary? Can I inherit them from my relatives? Let’s continue to look at the nature of this disease to answer these questions.

Genes and inheritance: who is who?

Each of our cells, in their nucleus, contains our genetic material. Everything. That is, a cell in the skin of our feet contains exactly the same genetic material as a neuron in our brain, what happens is that each, depending on the organ or tissue in which it is, will express several genes or others.

Our genetic material, or DNA, which means deoxyribonucleic acid, is a type of molecule known as nucleic acid. These molecules are made up of different units, nucleotides are the most important. Nucleotides are nitrogenous bases and can be of four types: adenine, guanine, cytosine or thymine. Everything we are depends on how the sequence of these four nitrogenous bases is .

These nucleotides combine to form a series of genes. These genes are pieces of DNA that carry information to perform a specific process in the body. Depending on the gene, this process will be done one way or another. And there are enzymes that “read” the nucleotide sequence and, depending on what you write, they will create specific proteins. Therefore, genes determine absolutely everything. For example, from cellular metabolic processes to observable characteristics such as eye color.


But here we stop. Because, as we said, genes determine the internal processes of the cell. And this includes, of course, the degree to which it is divided and the physiological functions it performs. We are approaching the topic of cancer.

And it is when DNA-breaking enzymes establish an incorrect nitrogenous base, for example, an adenine where there must be a guanine, that a mutation arises. And we have already said that the more you accumulate (the greater the number of divisions, the greater the probability of mutations), the more likely it is that cell division control will be disrupted. And this is when a potentially malignant tumor can develop.

Therefore, absolutely all cancers have their origin in a mutation of genetic origin. Everything. So it is normal for us to think that, since it is something genetic, this mutation can be passed down from generation to generation. But no. Because “genetic” and “hereditary”, though they may seem synonymous, are not. And here is the key to everything.

It is true that we get our genes from our parents, but let us think about which ones we get. Only those that are in the germ cells, namely the eggs and sperm.Only when the mutations are also encoded in the genetic material of these cells, we will inherit the mutation in question.

All of our genes are changing throughout our lives and they are damaged , but these changes we undergo in life (such as a change in cell division rhythm control) are not passed on to the next generation. To believe this is the same as believing that giraffes have such long necks, because a first short-necked giraffe lengthened its neck a little over its lifetime and passed that characteristic on to its offspring, who again lengthened its neck, caused each time the species had a longer neck Me

  • We recommend that you read: “How does natural selection work?”

But this is not so. We inherit only the genes that are in our germ cells. If in life, the genes of any of our cells are modified (causing, for example, cancer), this mutation will not be passed on to the next generation.

So is cancer hereditary?

As we have seen, cancer can be understood as a genetic disease. Which is not the same as hereditary disease. Cancer-related genes can only be passed down from generation to generation if they are “anchored” in the DNA of egg or sperm cells.

If the germ cell genetic material is in good condition, no matter how much our father or mother has developed cancer throughout his life, we will not be more likely to suffer from it. Because the DNA we got from eggs and sperm is correct.

Therefore, in general we can assert that cancer is not an inherited disease , since the mutations that cause it are acquired in life and do not occur in germ cells. But of course there are exceptions.

  • We recommend that you read: “10 most common inherited diseases”

And is that some genes have been observed that can be damaged “by the plant” and contained in the genetic material of eggs or sperm, in which case there is inheritance. But we are not talking about mutated genes (this only happens along the wrong cell divisions), but about predisposing genes.

These genes are actually encoded in germ cells and, therefore, make the boy or girl more susceptible to the disease. But is it a conviction? Absolutely. When you get this gene, you are not getting cancer. You are getting a greater chance of suffering it.

Even if we have this gene, we do not have to develop mutations that will lead to cancer. We are more inclined, yes. But we are not doomed to suffer. These hereditary cancers can also be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle: eat healthy, do sports, do not smoke, do not overdo it with sunlight, avoiding alcohol consumption …

Depending on the predisposition we have inherited, prevention should focus on one aspect or another. But the important thing is to understand that, although this gene is there, it does not have to show signs of its presence. What we are, is partly, finds, but above all, the way of life we ​​follow, which is what determines which genes are expressed and which are not.

Conclusion: only a small percentage of cancers are hereditary. In fact, it is estimated that only between 5% and 10% of cancers are due to inheritance of predisposing genes from relatives, with the breast, ovary, colorectal and endocrine system genes being the most common.

You will never inherit cancer from your relatives, in the sense that you will not get damaged genetic material and the mutation from which the cancer originates. This will never happen because genetic changes in life are not passed on to the next generation.

But it is possible, especially if there are many cases in your family, to have a predisposing gene in your germ cells. But it is not a punishment. The fact of whether or not cancer develops is true, it is, in part, at the hands of chance , but by following a healthy lifestyle you can achieve that the risk of suffering is almost like that of someone without this predisposing gene.

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