If cervical cancer runs in your family, you may wonder — is cervical cancer hereditary? But there are other reasons several relatives may have cervical cancer.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and your mom, sister, grandmother, or other female relative has also been diagnosed with this malignancy at some time, you may ask an obvious question: Is cervical cancer hereditary?
While it’s true some diseases affecting several members of a family are caused by genetic factors, cervical cancer is not known to be one of these, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Instead, almost all cases of cervical cancer are the result of long-lasting infections with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).
However, there are reasons other than heredity that can explain why some families have multiple members who develop cervical cancer.
What is a hereditary disease?
A particular disorder is sometimes described as “running in a family” if more than one person in the family has the condition.
When multiple related people develop certain disorders, their health problem might be caused by gene mutations, which can be inherited (passed down from parent to child). Having a genetic predisposition is another way heredity can impact whether several people in a family develop a disorder, the NIH explains. A genetic predisposition results from specific inherited genetic variations which can contribute to the development of a disease — but these genetic variations don’t necessarily always impact health. So some people in a family with a predisposing genetic variation may get the disease while others never will.
Hereditary factors do play a role in certain gynecological cancers. For example, mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are known to increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. But no genetic explanation has been documented when it comes to cervical cancer risk.
Why cervical cancer can run in families
If you have relatives who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, especially your mother or sister, the odds you may develop the disease are somewhat higher than if no family member ever had cervical cancer, the American Cancer Society points out.
Although there’s no evidence cervical cancer is a hereditary disease, there are several other possible explanations why cervical cancer may run in families. Lifestyle and environmental exposures likely play a big role because of the impact these factors can have on the immune system.
For example, if you and female family members in your household were exposed to secondhand smoke growing up, you and your relatives may have an elevated risk for cervical cancer. And if you smoke now, you are about twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as a non-smoker.
Growing up in a family where meals included few vegetables and fruits — especially if you and female relatives still eat a diet low in fruits and veggies — also raises the risk women in your family may develop cervical cancer.
What’s more, if you and female family members are obese or significantly overweight, you share more than a weight problem — you have an increased risk for cervical cancer.
Protect yourself from cervical cancer
Instead of worrying about your family history and whether cervical cancer is hereditary, it makes sense to lower the risk factors you can control for cervical cancer.
Help protect yourself from cervical cancer by living a healthy lifestyle (keeping weight in check, eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking). And have regular Pap tests to detect precancerous changes in the cervix or cervical cancer early, when it is almost always curable.
March 18, 2020
Janet O'Dell, RN