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The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center

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Hereditary versus Sporadic Cancer

What causes cancer?

Most cancers are caused by changes in genes, called mutations. Genetic mutations can interfere with how the body normally works, such as stopping cells from growing out of control or repairing any damage to the cells.

If a person inherits a particular cancer-causing mutation from their parents and develops cancer as a result, that type of cancer can be called hereditary cancer. Other names for this type of cancer include inherited cancer or family cancer. Some well-known hereditary cancers include BRCA gene-related breast cancers, and colon cancers such as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer and familial adenomatous polyposis.

It’s important to remember that these types of inherited mutations only increase the likelihood that a person will develop cancer, in most cases. They don’t mean that a person will absolutely have that cancer.

Most of the time, genetic mutations that can cause cancer occur over a person’s lifetime, either by chance or as the result of exposure to something that increases the risk of cancer, such as smoking cigarettes. Cancers that develop this way are sometimes called sporadic cancers. Doctors sometimes will call a cancer sporadic if a patient has no family history of a certain cancer or if the patient has no known genetic mutations or exposure that might increase his or her likelihood of having the cancer.