What role does genetics play in carcinogenesis?

Genetic factors are inherited, that is, passed from parents to children. However, establishing a genetic-environmental interaction (significant and valid evidence that a specific genetic factor leads to an increased chance that a particular environmental exposure will result in cancer) requires studies of large populations over long periods of time. Some of their discoveries are outlined below:

      • All cancers develop because of genetic alterations of one kind or another. An alteration is a change or mutation in the physical structure of a gene that interferes with the gene's normal functions

     • Some genetic alterations that increase the risk of cancer are present at birth in the genes of all cells in the body, including reproductive cells. These changes, which are called germ line mutations, can be passed from parent to child. This type of alteration is known as an inherited susceptibility; most cancers are not due to an inherited susceptibility

     • Most cancers result from genetic changes that occur after birth during one's lifetime. Genetic changes can occur in any cell that divides. These genetic changes are called somatic alterations

     • Familial cancer clusters (cancer that occurs in families more often than would be expected by chance) have been reported for many types of cancer. Because cancer is a common disease, it is not unusual for several cases to occur within a family. Familial cancer clusters are sometimes linked to inherited susceptibility, but environmental factors and chance may also be involved

Having an inherited susceptibility for a type of cancer does not necessarily mean that the individual will be diagnosed with the cancer; it means the chance of developing cancer increases if other factors that promote the development of cancer are present or are encountered late.

This information is based on source information from the National Cancer Institute.

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