Family History Can Elevate Your Risk for Colon Cancer

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. This is a time to raise awareness about colon cancer, the third-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and take preventative action. Colon cancer affects 5 percent of the U.S. population (1 out of every 20 individuals), but many people are unaware of the risk that colon cancer presents.

Family History Affects Colon Cancer Risk
Although most colon cancers develop independently, about 5 to 10 percent of colon cancers are genetically inherited. This means that a person who has a family history of colon cancer and develops the disease is more likely to have inherited the gene than a person with no family history of colon cancer.
Being aware of your family’s health history is essential because you may be a candidate for early screening. People who are at average risk for colon cancer should schedule their first colonoscopy at 50 years of age. If colon cancer runs in your family, you should talk to your doctor about being screened earlier.

Lynch Syndrome and FAP
Two common inherited colorectal syndromes are hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome) and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). These diseases affect men and women alike and can develop at young ages. Children of men and women who carry the gene for Lynch syndrome and FAP have a 50 percent risk of inheriting the disease-causing gene.

Lynch syndrome comprises 3 to 5 percent of all colon cancers. While the average age for a new diagnosis of colon cancer is 72, the average age for a new diagnosis of Lynch syndrome is 45. It is important for individuals with Lynch syndrome to be under a doctor’s care because Lynch Syndrome makes one prone to developing other cancers including endometrial (uterine), stomach, breast, ovarian, small bowel (intestinal), pancreatic, prostate, urinary tract, liver, kidney, and bile duct cancers.

FAP is also associated with additional health risks. Those affected by FAP develop hundreds or thousands of precancerous polyps in the colon, and the number of polyps increases with age. These polyps begin forming in the mid-teens, and people with FAP will develop colon cancer in their thirties unless the colon is surgically removed.

Why You Should Be Screened Earlier
If you have a family history of colon cancer, it is important to be screened for colon cancer at an earlier age and at shorter intervals. Even having a family history of precancerous polyps can increase your chances of developing colon cancer by 35 to 70 percent. Not everyone should wait until the age of 50 to get a colonoscopy. The age at which you should get your first colonoscopy is often known as your “colonoscopy age.” There are a few factors that affect your colonoscopy age:

  • Having a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps
  • Having a first-degree relative like a parent, sibling or child with colon cancer or colon polyps
  • Being of African American descent

Here is a general guideline: If you have a first-degree relative with colon cancer or colon polyps, you should be screened ten years earlier than the age that the relative was at time of diagnosis. Having a family history of colon cancer does not mean that you will develop the disease. What it does mean is that you need to make regular doctor
visits a top priority. Regular check-ups and routine colonoscopies are your best defense against colon cancer.

This March, celebrate Colon Cancer Awareness Month by making sure that you are up-to-date on your colon cancer screenings. Another way to support the cause is to talk to your loved ones about getting a colonoscopy. Colon cancer prevention requires commitment and participation from everyone, so spread the word—and save a life!