Colorectal cancer and family history

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
June 3, 2008 4:49:16 PM PDT
There is good news and bad news surrounding a type of cancer and your family history.Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

The bad news is well-known - if you have a family history of colon cancer, you're more likely to get it. The good news is that a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that knowing your family has a history of colorectal cancer could be what saves your life.

Suzanne Landry has colon cancer in her family, but still, she was shocked when, last year, at age 38, she was diagnosed.

"I just had a colonoscopy three years ago and there was no polyp," she said. "How could it go from nothing to cancer in three years?"

Medical researcher Dr. Jennifer Chan looked at the records of more than 1,000 colon cancer patients who had a stage 3 cancer.

Eighteen percent of them had a parent or a sibling dignosed with the disease.

"The main finding was that the patients who had a family member with colon or rectal cancer had improved outcomes," she said.

Starting in 1999 and continuing through the next eight years, the 1,000-plus patients had surgery and chemotherapy.

Those with a family history had lower rates of recurrence and death.

"So as a group patients with a family history of colon or rectal cancer had an approximately 25 percent decrease in the chances of having a cancer recurrence or death," Dr. Chan said.

Researchers say it appears that differences in the molecular make-up of the cancer influence patient survival.

"We suspect that the patients may have a genetic trait that affects the biological behavior of the disease and the chance for recurrence," Dr. Chan said.

Landry says the findings are reassuring.

"It won't change anything," she said. "I'll still do the follow-ups and I'll still worry. I guess there's no way around the worrying."

Besides the molecular findings, doctors know that being aware of family history could make patients more vigilant and more cautious about keeping up with scheduled exams, such as colonoscopies. More studies are in the works to discover more about the family-colon cancer connection.