In the quest to understand cancer and our risk of getting it, new research suggests that we should look closer to home. In fact, we should look to our own family members — both living and dead — as they might be able to tell us a lot about what could lie ahead…

Cancer runs in the family

Scientists who have been studying a host of cancers have come to the conclusion that in many cases, cancer does run in the family.

Annals of Oncology journal found that for 13 types of cancer, close relatives of a cancer sufferer had an increased risk of the getting same disease. Interestingly, the study found that you’re not just at risk of developing the same cancer as your relative, but other types of cancers too.

If you have a relative who’s had cancer of the larynx, you’re three times more likely to get oral and pharyngeal cancer. Men with a first degree relative with bladder cancer are 3.4 times more likely to contract prostate cancer. And if you’re a woman with a relative who’s had bowel cancer, you’re statistically more likely to get breast cancer.

Lifestyle choices do play a part of course: if your parents were heavy smokers and you grew up breathing in second hand smoke and taking the habit up yourself, you’re both more likely to get lung cancer.

But the study found that there was more going on than environmental and factors. They adjusted their results to take lifestyle choices into consideration – something many studies in the past haven’t been able to do.

Lead a healthy life

But it’s important to put the findings into context. Just because your family has been untouched by cancer for generations doesn’t give you a green light to live an unhealthy lifestyle. And even if you are more at risk than most, taking regular exercise, eating a varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep and generally taking care of your body can make a difference.

Jessica Harris from Cancer Research UK was keen to remind people of the importance of staying healthy:

‘Whether or not someone in your family has had cancer, living a healthy life can really help to stack the odds in our favour, and reduce the risk of cancer.’

Spot it early

Scientists have made huge breakthroughs in recent years thanks to the funds which have been pumped into research and ground-breaking clinical trials. Survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years, in fact.

If caught early, nine in ten people can survive bowel cancer. And breast cancer survival rates are much higher if caught early before the cancer has a chance to spread and get into the lymph nodes. Awareness campaigns have made most women vigilant about paying attention to their breasts and reporting changes to their doctor, but it’s important that we all understand the main cancer symptoms which could indicate one of the 200 cancers out there.

There are some types of cancer which we’re recommended to get screened for regularly. Men over a certain age should always check in with their doctor to check the health of their prostate and women over 25 should never miss their smear test which can detect the early stages of cervical cancer.

But you may also want to considerhaving a healthcare plan if you want to make sure you get screened and treated quickly or get access to breakthrough cancer drugs without delay. With cancer, acting fast and being ever-vigilant will always be key to surviving it until it’s eradicated entirely.

Taking action

Some people also opt to have preventive surgery if they’ve been warned that their at risk. Angelina Jolie brought the issue to the fore recently when she made the brave decision to have a double mastectomy and announced her plans to have her ovaries removed too. Her mother died from ovarian cancer while her aunt recently lost her battle with breast cancer, which is what promoted the star to have tests carried out. She found that she has an estimated 87% risk of getting breast cancer and a 50% risk of developing ovarian cancer.

And three American siblings took the extreme measure of having their entire stomachs removed after tests looking for a rare cancer-causing gene mutation came back positive. They were promoted to have the test after a string of deaths in the family: their Mum died of colon cancer and their brother died from diffuse gastric cancer at the age of 46.

Are your worried that you might be genetically pre-disposed to cancer?

Jamie Monteath is a writer specialising on health topics as well as some business and travel elements. He advises any family going through the trauma of a potentially fatal illness to consider having a healthcare plan for the short and long term.