One of the risk factors for colorectal cancer is a family history of the disease. Colorectal cancer is called "hereditary" or "inherited" when several generations of a family have colorectal cancer. Several gene mutations, or abnormalities, that cause colorectal cancer, and allow it to be transmitted to family members, have been found. A gene is a block of DNA that holds the genetic code, or instructions, for producing proteins vital to our bodily functions.
The 2 most common inherited colorectal cancer syndromes are hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). They can affect either sex, and the children of people who carry these genes have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease-causing gene.
When Jennifer Marrone of San Diego, CA, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 30, she didn't just want to know what her treatment options were. "I wanted to know how they were going to affect my life," says Marrone, who's now 35. She was pleased when her oncologist at UC San Diego Health gave her several suggestions for medications and lifestyle changes, like adopting a diet free of animal protein. He also had copies of research studies to back up each potential therapy and treatment.
These 2 inherited cancer syndromes account for less than 5% of all colorectal cancers.
Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC), also known as Lynch syndrome
Nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, HNPCC, is the most common form of hereditary colon cancer, accounting for about 3% of all colorectal cancer diagnoses each year. People with HNPCC often have at least 3 family members and 2 generations with colorectal cancer, and cancer develops before age 50. Although not everyone who inherits the HNPCC gene will develop colorectal cancer, the risk is very high -- about 80%. People with HNPCC also have a higher risk of developing other Lynch-syndrome related cancers, such as kidney, ovarian, uterine, renal pelvis, small intestine, and stomach cancer.
Health care providers can evaluate the pattern of colorectal cancer in relatives in order to determine if the family has HNPCC. Families considered to be "HNPCC families" must display certain criteria indicating a pattern of colon cancer throughout generations. These are referred to as the Amsterdam Criteria, and include:
At least 3 members with a Lynch syndrome defined cancer
At least 2 successive generations with this type of cancer
Two family members with the disease are first-degree relatives (i.e. parents, brothers, sisters or children) of another family member with a Lynch syndrom cancer
At least 1 member affected at or before age 50
The familial adenomatous polyposis syndrome is excluded from the family member's diagnosis
If you feel this applies to you, consult your doctor. Colonoscopies are recommended in family members who are 10 years younger than the youngest family member who was diagnosed with cancer.