young woman talking with grandmother
young woman talking with grandmother

How Do I Know If I'm At High Risk For Developing Cancer?

Posted on August 19, 2021 by Henry Ford Health Staff

You’ve probably heard the term “high risk” when it comes to cancer. You probably know it refers to people who are more likely to develop a certain type of cancer than others. But do you know who is defined as high risk? Aside from certain environmental factors (such as being a longtime smoker), risk level is determined based upon family history.

“A person who has first- and sometimes second-degree relatives who have had cancer is considered high risk,” says Dawn Severson, M.D., a medical oncologist with Henry Ford Health. “Especially if those cancers occurred at earlier ages and without other explanations. For example, cancers that family members developed when they weren’t exposed to certain chemicals and other carcinogenic substances in the environment.”

First-degree relatives include parents and siblings, while second-degree relatives include aunts, uncles, grandparents and half-siblings. And whether they’re male or female doesn’t matter.

“A popular misconception is that cancer risk is based upon ones’ sex, but that’s not true,” says Dr. Severson. “A male patient who has several female family members with breast cancer is at high risk for developing breast cancer, along with prostate and pancreatic cancer.”

What To Do If You’re High Risk

Determining whether you’re high risk for developing cancer—and taking the appropriate steps if you are—can be life-saving. Here, Dr. Severson shares what to do. 

  1. Talk to your family members. Write down who had what cancers, their relationship to you, and the ages they were diagnosed. Bring this list to your doctor, who can tell you whether you are high risk.
  2. If you are high risk, your doctor will refer you to a genetic counselor for genetic testing. Genetic testing, which is performed through a blood test or saliva swab, will identify cancer-causing gene mutations. It can also guide future cancer treatment. “Certain cancer treatments can be tailored to someone’s genes, so it’s becoming increasingly important to know your genetic profile,” says Dr. Severson.
  3. Follow up with your genetic counselor. Based upon your test results, your genetic counselor will offer you preventative recommendations. One of these recommendations will be to get regular cancer screenings. If you’re high risk for breast cancer, for example, it’s recommended to begin screenings at age 30, while if you’re high risk for prostate cancer, it’s recommended to begin screenings at age 45. And if you’re high-risk for lung cancer, it’s recommended to begin screenings at age 55. Read more about screening guidelines here.

The Importance of Staying Vigilant

As more is learned about the human genome, your genetic profile will be updated to give you more information about your potential risks. That’s one reason why it’s a good idea to stay in contact with your doctor and genetic counselor.

“Be proactive—and share your health results with your family to keep them healthy, too,” says Dr. Severson. “The sooner you know your risk level, the sooner we can start keeping you and your family healthy. It’s all about prevention.”

Want more advice from our experts?
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Make an appointment to talk with your doctor about your cancer risk factors and necessary screenings at or by calling 1-800-436-7936.

To find a cancer specialist, visit or call 1-888-777-4167. 

Dr. Dawn Severson is a board-certified medical oncologist and member of Henry Ford Cancer. She sees patients at Henry Ford Macomb Health Center in Shelby Township and Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township.

Categories : FeelWell

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