Vail: Knowing family can reduce colon cancer risk |

Vail: Knowing family can reduce colon cancer risk

Melanie Taylor
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and a good opportunity to learn more about how your family history can affect your risk for colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in both men and women. It usually starts as a polyp, a non-cancerous clump of cells that grows on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Over time, a polyp can develop into cancer.

Polyps can be found and removed during routine colonoscopy, a common screening procedure for colorectal cancer. Removal of polyps reduces the risk that cancer will develop.

Usually colorectal cancer is diagnosed in individuals without a family history or with one or two affected relatives. Sometimes there is a strong family history and the colorectal cancer is due to genetic predisposition. In other words, there is a faulty gene being passed down in the family, and people who inherit this faulty gene have a higher than average risk for colorectal cancer.

There are several genes responsible for genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer. Some cause a person to develop more polyps than usual. More polyps means a higher risk that one of those polyps will turn into cancer.

Other genes cause polyps to transition into cancer much faster than usual, also raising risk. The good news is we know where these faulty genes are and how to test for them.

The genes that cause high risk for colon cancer are rare in the general population, so not everyone is a good candidate for genetic testing. Health care professionals look for red flags in a person’s family history to identify those most likely to carry the faulty genes. These red flags can include polyps or colorectal cancer at a young age, more than one family member with colorectal or other associated cancers, or more than one cancer in one person.

It can be scary finding out that you’re at high risk of getting cancer, but having this information can also be empowering. People who know they carry a faulty gene can take positive steps to reduce their cancer risks or to find cancer early.

They can begin having colonoscopies at an earlier age and get them more frequently. They can have regular screenings for other cancers associated with the genes, which can help to catch cancers early so that treatment is easier and has a higher chance of being successful. They can also notify their family members of their potential risks, so that they too can take steps to reduce these risks.

If you are concerned that there may be hereditary risk for cancer in your family, the first step is to gather your family history. Bring your family history information to your health care provider. They may discuss your risks with you or they may refer you to a genetics specialist.

Melanie Taylor is a cancer genetic counselor, a genetics specialist who focuses on hereditary cancer risk, at the Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards. She can be reached at 970-569-7626 or

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