Using Genetics to Prevent Cancer

You share a lot with your family, including what can make you sick. Blood-related family members share genes, so if one individual is diagnosed with a genetic condition, his or her blood relatives may be at a higher risk for having that condition, too. Cascade screening identifies people at higher risk for disease by tracing a condition through families. Public health seeks out those who are at the greatest risk to offer screening, support, and prevention services. With genetic conditions, those who are at greatest risk can be identified at no cost using a detailed family health history.

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Nearly 2 million people in the United States are at increased risk for one of three genetic conditions that can lead to adverse health outcomes, including cancer or heart disease. Lynch syndrome (LS), hereditary breast/ovarian cancer (HBOC), and familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) are passed down in families from one generation to the next. Families often do not realize when they are at risk for one of these conditions, and even fewer know that there are important steps that can prevent these negative health outcomes.

If you or someone in your family is diagnosed with one of these three genetic conditions, you should encourage all family members to be screened. Even if your family shows no signs of illness, being tested early and catching these treatable genetic conditions before symptoms worsen is essential for effective treatment and future good health.

It may be scary to tell your family about your condition, but it can make a huge difference in the health of your relatives if you are open about it. A genetic counselor or other healthcare provider can help you figure out how to start the conversation. You can even write a letter to the family sharing who is at risk. Sample letters can be found in our “Sharing Your Diagnosis” series. These sample letters are available for three specific conditions, but can be customized to fit the needs of many other conditions. Sharing health information with your family is important. Cascade genetic screening can save millions of lives, and knowing your family health history is an important first step in figuring out if individuals are at risk!

Genetic Alliance, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control’s Office of Public Health Genomics, has released a set of videos to share information on the importance of Tier 1 genomic applications with all interested partners as well as state departments of public health. Early detection and intervention are key to reducing the negative effects of these conditions, and these videos are part of a larger effort to facilitate the development of programs that can save thousands of lives through screening and prevention of these three conditions. Learn more at