Cancer is linked with genetics and genetics is linked to heredity, which is why some people assume that all cancers are inherited. But the truth is, only about 10 percent of cancers are hereditary.

Did You Know? All the cancers arise from error in one single cell.

Cancer is an uncontrollable division of abnormal cells as a result of a mutation. There are many types of cancers affecting different parts of the body including the lungs, brain, blood and even bones.

So, what do you inherit from your parents? The cells you inherit are the germ line cells, or the cells that produce gametes (sperms and ova). This means that only mutations that occur in these germ line cells get passed on to the next generation.

Did You Know? Those cells in the body not involved in reproduction are called somatic cells.

All life on earth starts with just one cell—the zygote, or fertilized egg cell. The DNA molecules in the zygote are read like a blueprint to make the proteins used in the development of a living organism; different regions of the DNA code for different proteins.

Did You Know? Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, first used the word carcinoma to describe tumors. The word carcinoma is derived from a Greek word “karkinos” which means a crab.

Most cancers are acquired in one’s own lifetime due to exposure to carcinogens (any agent which can induce cancer including chemicals, pollution, tobacco, ultraviolet light etc.). Some mutations do occur spontaneously and don’t require exposure to any carcinogens. Which means, cancers can even be found in the pristine conditions of Himalayas.

Only about 10 percent of the time do mutations occur in the germ line cells, predisposing a person to particular types of cancer.

A major portion of your genome is made up of "non-coding" regions (parts of the DNA sequence that do not code for proteins) and mutations in these regions won't have any significant effect. Only mutations in the "coding" region of your genome may increase your chance of developing certain types of cancer. The most common hereditary cancer types include breast, ovarian, and colon. 

Learn more!

Information about Hereditary Cancers

History of Cancer

Heredity and Cancer

Article first published November 15, 2011


Gokul Rajan

Gokul lives in New Delhi, India. He is a Masters Student in the Department of Biosciences & Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)- Bombay. Apart from Science, he enjoys travelling, reading and music. He is an athlete too, and loves cycling and running

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