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Thursday, June 30, 2016
Hi, my mother died from pancreatic cancer age 47, both her parents were cancer free and lived till very old age. We think her grandmother, her fathers mother, had liver cancer age 55, genetics at cambridge have told me it was most likely a chance thing but ive always been worried. My grandfather had a brother who never developed cancer and died at 70 from other causes. We have traced back 3 generations to see how long people lived and they were all over 60. Am i worrying too much? Also my mother was a smoker from her teenage years and suffered from hepatitis when she was a young woman.
Your concern is understandable given the young at age which your mother was diagnosed. Most pancreatic cancers are “sporadic;” that is, not caused by an identifiable genetic factor. In families in which there is a genetic explanation we typically find family histories suggestive of a few different hereditary cancer syndromes. These include:
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (with family members affected with early-onset breast cancer and ovarian cancer)
- Hereditary colon cancer (family members with early onset colon cancer
- Possibly endometrial cancer as well as other gastro-intestinal cancers)
- Hereditary melanoma and pancreatic cancer (family members with early-onset melanoma, multiple melanomas and pancreatic)
There are also a couple of other very rare cancer syndromes in which pancreatic cancer can be found.
You have done your homework and learned that no one else in the family has been diagnosed with any kind of cancer for 3 generations and you contacted someone at Cambridge who told you this is unlikely to be genetic or hereditary. While we cannot say with absolute certainty that this was not caused by a genetic factor, I agree that the chances are quite low. Your mother also had a clear risk factor, cigarette smoking, and a suspected risk factor, hepatitis. It is very possible that these two risk factors are responsible for your mother's pancreatic cancer.
However, having a mother with pancreatic cancer does increase your risk for pancreatic cancer a bit over the population risk. Just to be on the safe side, you should discuss this with your family physician. You should also avoid smoking as this is a clearly proven risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
At this time there is no screening that has been proven to improve survival if a pancreatic cancer has been diagnosed. Your physician might be able to discuss other ways to address some of your concerns.
Duane D Culler, PhD, MS
Clinical Instructor of Genetics
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University