Prostate cancer is unfortunately a relatively common disease, with 1 in 9 men diagnosed in their lifetime. Most of the time, cancer is caused by chance. Sometimes multiple factors play a role. In some families, cancer is caused by a single genetic factor that puts a man at a higher risk.
Our genes are made up of DNA, which is the instruction manual for the body. Just like an instruction manual, DNA is made up of letters that spell out messages to the body. These messages are responsible for specifying the way we look, the way our body operates, and even help to protect us from developing cancer. Some individuals are born with a change in their genetic code which then puts them at a higher chance to develop cancer. These mistakes can be passed on in families and be shared in common with other relatives. These families are considered to have “hereditary” cancer. Clinical genetic testing can find out whether your prostate cancer was caused by one of the genes that we know is linked to a higher chance of this type of cancer.
Even though prostate cancer is quite common amongst men, most of these cancers are not considered to be hereditary. For those families that are found to have a hereditary cause, genetic testing allows for family members to be tested to see if they have a higher risk to develop cancer. No gene confers a guarantee that someone will go on to develop cancer. Men who have a family history of prostate cancer are still at an increased risk to develop this type of cancer even without an identified gene. Those family members that are at a higher risk of cancer can develop a personalized screening and cancer prevention plan with their doctors to help keep them healthy.
We know that prostate cancer that is hereditary behaves differently than sporadic prostate cancer. If a man is found to carry a gene that caused his cancer, his doctors may discuss additional treatment options available to him to treat or stabilize his disease. This may be particularly important in men who have metastatic prostate cancer (cancer that has spread outside of the prostate to the bone or other organs).
While sisters and daughters would not be at an increased risk for prostate cancer, many of the genes that cause prostate cancer in men are linked to higher risk of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in women. By testing for the genes, women can better protect themselves from these cancers.
Speaking with a genetic counselor is a great way to learn about hereditary prostate cancer. Genetic counseling involves a discussion about your cancer history and your family history to assess the likelihood that your history is due to a genetic cause. A genetic counselor can also coordinate genetic testing for genes linked to hereditary prostate cancer. Whether you decide to have genetic testing or not, a genetic counselor can always help to counsel you and your family members about their chance to develop cancer…. and most importantly what they can do about it.