When a child is diagnosed with cancer, family members’ first concern is for the patient. But new research from Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah suggests close relatives of children with cancer may also be at risk themselves and need to be particularly vigilant for signs of familial cancer.
The study, published online in the International Journal of Cancer, suggests doctors must be aware of the potential cancer risk in relatives of patients.
The study, led by Joshua Schiffman, M.D., examined the family medical histories of 4,482 children with cancer over a 43-year period to determine the cancer risk in their relatives. The results showed that when children were diagnosed with any kind of cancer at age 18 or younger, the cancer risk to their parents and siblings was nearly double that of families with no childhood cancer patients. If the cancer diagnosis came when the child was age 4 or less, the risk to close relatives for childhood cancer increased almost four times.
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"No one had previously studied the question, so we simply told parents there was no evidence of increased risk to the other children," said Dr. Schiffman. "Now we can give an evidence-based answer—the risk depends on your family history of cancer.
"Not all children's cancers are hereditary. But the numbers in this study suggest that the proportion of hereditary childhood cancers may be significantly higher than the 5-10 percent generally cited in adult hereditary cancers, and likely even more than 20 percent. "
Although childhood cancer rarely occurs in the population, the researchers recommended collecting three generations of family medical histories for all newly diagnosed pediatric cancer patients and genetic counseling. In addition, parents of children diagnosed with cancer before age five with a family history of cancer should be advised of the potential for increased risk to other children in the family.
"We want to encourage the taking of a family history as part of routine care. With all cancers, but perhaps especially with childhood cancers, so many other questions seem so urgent, a family history may not seem to be the most pressing issue," said co-researcher Wendy Kohlmann, director of HCI's Genetic Counseling Program. "When families are referred into genetic counseling, we can provide them with more information about the risks and actions they can take."
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