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Genes and cancer

All cancers are caused by a change in genes or damage to genes. Genes are found in every cell in the body. Genes inside each cell tell it when to grow, work, divide and die. Genes are pieces of DNA found within chromosomes in all of our cells. When a gene changes or mutates (called a gene mutation), the instructions it gives to the cell can stop it from working properly. This can cause abnormal development in the body or a medical condition.

Genes act like on and off switches inside of our cells. They control how our cells work by making proteins, such as antibodies and enzymes, and messengers such as hormones. A gene’s proteins give the instructions to our cells that tell them when to grow, divide and die (a process called apoptosis). And each gene has instructions within its DNA that tells a cell how to make these proteins.

When genes work properly, they help protect us against cancer. But when there is a change in our DNA or damage to our DNA, a gene can mutate. A mutated gene doesn’t work properly because the instructions in its DNA get mixed up. This can cause cells that should be resting to divide and grow out of control, and this may lead to cancer. Gene mutations can also cause a cell to make too many proteins, abnormal proteins or not enough proteins.

Gene mutations happen in our cells all the time. Every time a cell divides there is a risk of a mistake being made when the cell makes a copy of its DNA. Our cells can usually find these mistakes and fix them before they are passed on to new cells. But sometimes cells can’t fix these changes, and the changes are passed on to new cells. The cells that have a gene mutation because of damaged DNA are the ones that can become cancerous. Since gene mutations build up over time, we have a higher risk of developing cancer as we get older.

Inherited and non-inherited cancers

Some cancers are caused by genetic changes we are born with and that are inherited from our parents. Cancers that are caused by inherited gene mutations are called inherited or hereditary cancers. People with inherited gene mutations have a higher risk of developing cancer, but it doesn’t mean they will develop cancer. But people who have inherited gene mutations linked to cancer tend to develop cancer more often and at an earlier age than the rest of the population. Of all cancer cases, only about 5% to 10% are caused by inheriting a certain gene mutation.

But many types of cancer have been linked to heredity including breast and colon cancer in adults and retinoblastoma in children.

Other cancers develop from genetic changes that happen during our lifetime. These are non-inherited cancers (also called sporadic or acquired cancers). They develop from gene mutations that happen when genes wear out as we get older or when we are exposed to something around us that causes cancer. Most cancers are non-inherited.


The basic biological unit of heredity passed from parents to a child. Genes are pieces of DNA and determine a particular characteristic of an individual.

deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

The molecules inside the cell that program genetic information. DNA determines the structure, function and behaviour of a cell.


The part of a cell that contains DNA (genetic information).

In humans, each cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes or 46 chromosomes in total.

gene mutation

A permanent change or alteration in a gene.

Gene mutations can be inherited or can be acquired during a person’s life.


A type of protein made by the immune system that disarms or destroys a specific foreign substance (antigen) when it appears in the body.


A protein that speeds up certain chemical reactions in the body.

For example, enzymes in the intestines help to digest food.


A substance that regulates specific body functions, such as metabolism, growth and reproduction.

Natural hormones are produced by glands. Artificial or synthetic hormones can be made in the lab.