You are here

Genetics Counseling

Hereditary Cancer Risk Assessment

Genetic Counseling: What to Expect       Genetics and Breast/Ovarian Cancer

Genetics and Colorectal Cancer              Additional Information

Cancer is a relatively common diagnosis in the general population, and the majority of cancers are not due to inherited (genetic) factors.  When cancer develops because of genetic factors, or mutations, individuals carrying these genetic mutations present with often very high risks of cancer.  In addition, the cancer tends to occur at a younger age than in the general population.  While hereditary cancer syndromes account for a minority of cancer diagnoses, it is important that they are identified as general population screening is not adequate. 

What Percentage of Cancer is Hereditary Cancer?

Underlying etiologies of cancer are generally thought to fall into three different categories including: 

  • Sporadic – the cancer is likely due to several factors (largely environmental) with increasing age being the largest risk factor
  • Familial/Multifactorial - where there is a clustering of cancer in the family likely due to several genetic and environmental factors shared amongst family members.
  • Hereditary - the cancer in the family is due to a single gene alteration predisposing members of the family who carry the alteration to a significantly higher risk of cancer than observed in the general population

Cancer Percentages


Genetics and Inheritance of Hereditary Cancer

Genes are the instructions for the body; they provide the cell with information about how to grow, develop, and perform its normal functions.  When a gene’s code contains a change, called a mutation, the normal cell function is impaired.  Thus in some instances, gene mutations can lead to disease.  Hereditary cancer syndromes can be due to mutations in many different genes and these mutations predispose individuals to increased risks for cancer.  

Each person has two copies of every gene. One copy is inherited from their mother, and one copy is inherited from their father.  Mutations causing hereditary cancer syndrome can be passed down through the family by both men and women.  The risk to children of an individual with a hereditary cancer syndrome depends on the function of the specific gene carrying a mutation.  

For many hereditary cancer syndromes, genetic testing is available to help confirm whether a family has a mutation in a known gene. If a mutation is found, this confirms the diagnosis of a particular hereditary cancer syndrome and allows other at-risk relatives to be tested for the specific mutation.

Medical Management 

There are interventions available for most individuals with a diagnosed hereditary cancer syndrome to address the increased cancer risks by following specialized cancer prevention and early detection guidelines.  These interventions can often include a range of recommendations and options, such as regular screening, preventive surgery and certain medications.  When possible, individuals with hereditary cancer syndromes should seek management with physicians or centers who are experienced with this condition.

When to Consider Evaluation for Hereditary Cancer

Reviewing family history information with a genetic counselor can help determine the chance that a family has a hereditary cancer syndrome that may be predisposing individuals to cancer.

Features in the family history which may suggest a hereditary cancer syndrome:

1. Several family members with the same or related forms of cancer, often in multiple generations

2. Cancer occurring at a young age of onset

3. Individuals with bilateral or multiple primary tumors

4. Rare cancers or cancer in the less commonly affected sex (such as male breast cancer)

5. A lack of environmental risk factors

Family History Questionnaire – You may find it helpful to print and complete this questionnaire before your genetics visit. 

If your family member is not a Northwest KP member - To locate a genetic counselor near you, please visit and click on the ‘Find a Genetic Counselor’ link.

Based on your personal and/or family history of cancer, your provider will place a referral to our Genetics department for a consultation. You may also request a referral from your Primary Care Provider.  For more information on what to expect at your genetic counseling visit, click here.


Contact information

Kaiser Permanente Northwest

Department of Medical Genetics

Interstate Medical Office West

3325 N. Interstate Ave.

Portland, OR 97227-1099

Phone: 503-331-6593 or 1-800-813-2000 ext. 16-6593

Fax: 503-331-6320