Is Cancer a Genetic Condition?
The simple answer is yes, cancer is a genetic condition. Cancer is caused by changes or mutations to genes that control how a cell function, grows, and divides. When a mutation in a gene triggers uncontrolled cell growth, this leads to the development of tumors and cancer.
However, in reality, cancer is a complex disease with many different forms and variations of the disease. Research into the disease is developing, changing, and widening all of the time. And as the leading cause of death in many developed countries, this research must continue so that we can better understand the causes of cancer and how to prevent it.
Cancer as a genetic condition.
Widely believed to have been solely a metabolic disorder until 1971 and the discovery of oncogenes, genes believed to be responsible for causing cancer, our understanding of cancer as a genetic condition is changing all the time. There are currently over 1000 identified cancer-related genes. However, continued research suggests that cancer may be even more complex than previously thought, and both a genetic and metabolic disorder.
Is cancer genetic? What about environmental factors?
It has also long been proven that environmental and lifestyle choices may play a role in developing certain types of cancer. Tobacco, in cigarettes, and air pollution are just two factors responsible for cancers, including lung cancer.
Genetic testing and rare diseases
As 95% of cancer cases result from somatic mutations in the genes, as in those that occur after conception, genetic testing is not yet able to screen for the majority of cancers.
There are, however, syndromes that mean an affected individual is at higher risk for developing specific types of cancer:
Noonan syndrome: caused by a mutation in any of the PTPN II, SOSI, RAFI, RIT1 genes. Noonan makes individuals more susceptible to childhood cancers, such as leukemia.
Nevoid Basal Cell Carcinoma or Gorlin syndrome: makes individuals more susceptible to skin cancer, particularly basal cell carcinoma. Mutations on the PTCH gene are responsible for the syndrome.
Cowden syndrome: caused by mutations to the PTEN gene. This syndrome makes females more susceptible to developing breast and uterine cancer, and both males and females susceptible to thyroid cancer.
Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome: caused by mutations to the genes on chromosome 11, specifically 11p15.5. Kidney and liver cancers are associated with this syndrome.
While gene changes are responsible for cancer development, understanding which genes and how their mutations may develop into cancer are the subject of continued research. As our understanding of the causes of cancer grows, both as a genetic condition and beyond, so our ability to prevent and treat cancer increases too.