Do genetics influence lung cancer?

Dr. Thomas A. Hensing, MD
Hematologist & Oncologist

I think we’ve all seen families where there have been multiple members with lung cancer, but it’s common that they have different types of lung cancer. Some have had adenocarcinoma or small cell lung cancer. But overall, they tend to run in families. We look at the number of cases, family history, the number of family members in particular who have had lung cancer, and age of onset. In particular, when we see this earlier in life, it’s sort of a red flag that there maybe be a predisposition.

Dr. Raja M. Flores, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

If a patient has a family history of lung cancer, they may be at risk of developing lung cancer themselves. In this video, Raja Flores, MD, thoracic surgeon, explains why patients with a family history may have an exposure risk or a genetic risk.

While some cancer types such as breast, ovarian and colon cancer have been linked to genetic mutations, and being hereditary, the role of heredity in lung cancer is not as well-known. However, having a family history of lung cancer may increase one’s risk of developing lung cancer.

Dr. Daniel A. Nader, DO
Pulmonary Disease Specialist

Family history of lung cancer is a risk factor for developing lung cancer. It is common to obtain genetic information from the biopsy material of lung tumors to help medical oncologists with their treatment plans. Several genetic mutations of tumors have very specific therapies. EGFR and ALK are specific genetic mutations for which there are very specific chemotherapeutic drugs that have dramatic impact in tumor response.

There are families in whom types of breast cancer and colon cancer occur extremely frequently because of alterations (known as mutations) in the genes (genetic material). Such cancers are called "familial" because they occur predictably and frequently within a family.

Scientists have identified mutations in the genes of lung cancer patients, some of which encourage the transformation of normal cells into tumor cells (so called "promoter genes") and some of which inhibit that transformation into tumor cells ("suppressor genes"). However, the presence of these genes is not a reliable predictors of tumor growth. Thus, not every person who possesses the "promoter gene" will get lung cancer and not everyone with the "suppressor gene" will avoid lung cancer.

In summary, there is no "familial" type of lung cancer which predictably occurs within a specific family. However, it is not uncommon for lung cancer to strike more than one individual in the family and this may be due both to reasons of exposure (cigarette smoke) and to a genetic tendency.

There are some gene studies that are being done to try to find familial causes. There are two different types of gene mutations: There are somatic gene mutations that occur in the tumor itself, and then there are gene mutations that are basically passed down from one generation to the next. Those are gene abnormalities that are present in every gene in the body, as opposed to just gene abnormalities in the tumor itself.

When someone is a nonsmoker but has a family history of lung cancer, even if those family members were smokers, I think it needs to be on that person's radar. If you know that three or four family members had lung cancer but you're not a smoker, still ask yourself if there's anything you should be doing differently. The main thing is bring it to the attention of your primary care provider, so that they investigate any type of pulmonary symptoms.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.