Cancer Syndromes & Genetic Risk Factors for Cancer

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  • 0:01 Cancer at a Young Age
  • 0:33 Cancer Syndrome
  • 2:21 Clues to Cancer Syndrome
  • 4:42 Genetic Risk Factors
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson describes something called cancer syndrome or family cancer syndrome, as well as the important clues that can help it be detected and two examples of such a condition.

Cancer at a Young Age

Heart disease is something typically attributed to old age. So are arthritis, memory loss, cancer, and many other problems. But all of these things can occur early in life for so many different reasons. Even cancers that are more often than not associated with old age can occur unusually early in life. In such cases, genes play a huge role in predisposing a person to cancer. This lesson will review some of these genes and the cancers they put people at risk for.

Cancer Syndrome

Cancer syndrome is a term for a disorder characterized by the inheritance of genetic mutations that increase the risk for development, especially early development, of a cancer. Because it is an inherited condition, it is sometimes otherwise known as family cancer syndrome.

Genes are very specific pieces of information that code for the way your body runs. Each gene is responsible for one or more processes in your body, and basically all genes combine together to make sure you, overall, function properly.

If you can imagine that your body is like a car, it'll be easier to understand this. Each gene is like a part of a car. Maybe it's a gear, maybe it's a valve, maybe it's a tire. You get the point.

All of these parts of the car are responsible in one way or another for ensuring that things run smoothly. Now what if a new car got the wrong part put into it or maybe a malformed part stuck somewhere? While the entire car may still run, it may make weird noises, emit dark fumes, or break poorly. Something will be wrong despite the young age of the new car. That odd part is like a genetic mutation.

In a car, a mechanic can fix the problem and get the car running normally again. And in a human body, tumor suppressor genes help fix DNA mistakes so that cancer doesn't develop. But if the tumor suppressor gene isn't working right, the cancer has a much easier time developing when it otherwise may not have. This is why many family cancer syndromes arise from mutations in tumor suppressor genes, resulting in the latter's dysfunction and subsequent cancer development.

Clues to Cancer Syndrome

It is entirely possible that one or more people in a family develop cancer for reasons other than inherited genetic mutations. Such cancers can arise completely by chance or through exposure to carcinogens, cancer-causing agents, such as tobacco smoke.

However, there are some clues that can point to the fact that a person who has been diagnosed with cancer developed it due to an inherited mutation as opposed to random and unfortunate chances or carcinogen exposure.

These clues include:

  • A high rate of cancer within a family or a family history of a specific cancer in close relatives, especially if it's a rare type of cancer.
  • Developing cancer at an unusually young age when that particular cancer is actually more likely to occur in older individuals in general.
  • Developing a cancer associated with the opposite sex, like breast cancer in a man.
  • Having more than one primary cancer in the same person. This means someone, like a woman, may have something like breast cancer and ovarian cancer at the same time.
  • There's also the presence of congenital anomalies or birth defects in a person who develops cancer.
  • Having a cancer affect paired organs, such as both kidneys or both eyes.
  • Multifocal, or more than one point of focus, development of cancer in a single organ may also be a big clue.

'Multifocal' has a definition best remembered when you break it down. 'Focal' implies a focus, a location or point. When you focus on something, you're thinking about or looking at one particular thing. Therefore, 'multi-focus,' or 'multifocal,' implies more than one spot or point.

All of the clues I mentioned are just that - clues. Lots of things can make it seem like there is a cancer syndrome when there really isn't one.

Let me explain why using one example. One of our clues is having more than one primary cancer in the same person. Well, if those primary cancers are lung cancer and laryngeal cancer, then that may not be because of a family cancer syndrome. If that person smokes, developing these two primary cancers is not unexpected. Evaluating such confounding factors with your doctor is therefore important in establishing a true case of family cancer syndrome.

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