Can you inherit gastrointestinal cancer?

Gastroenterologist Sonia Kupfer, MD, left, with Genetic counselor Jessica Stoll
Gastroenterologist Sonia Kupfer, MD, left, with genetic counselor Jessica Stoll

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer refers to the group of cancers that involves the organs in our digestive system. GI cancers are the third most common cancer affecting men and women in the U.S.

In most cases, GI cancer develops by chance or is related to a risk factor such as smoking or obesity. In some instances, it runs in families and the risk of getting cancer is passed down from generation to generation.

The Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic at UChicago Medicine offers assessment for patients and families who may have increased risk for developing colorectal, gastric, pancreatic and other cancers of the digestive system.

“Today, we have a better understanding of the human genome and genetic testing is more affordable,” said gastroenterologist Sonia Kupfer, MD, director of the clinic. “With this information, we can tailor preventive care to patients based on their family history and personal risk of cancer.”

Kupfer answers questions about gastrointestinal cancer risk and prevention.

How common are inherited gastrointestinal cancers?

About 5 to 10 percent of GI cancers are considered hereditary — that is the patient inherited a gene mutation from one or both parents, which predisposed them to developing cancer in their lifetime. The rest are thought to be sporadic, which means the genetic changes that make a cell cancerous occur after a person is born.

How do I know if I am risk?

If you have first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) or other family members who have had a gastrointestinal cancer, your risk of developing the disease may be increased. The risk is even higher if a first-degree relative is diagnosed with the same cancer at a relatively young age (before 60).

There are also some inherited syndromes that increase the risk of developing gastrointestinal cancer. The most common of these is Lynch syndrome, which raises the risk of colon, stomach, small intestine and other cancers.

What does your program offer?

Our physicians and genetic counselors use personal and family history as well as genetic testing to assess cancer risk of individuals and their family members. Genetic testing is performed through a simple, painless blood test. Many insurance plans will cover genetic testing for patients with a personal and/or family history of cancer. Our genetic counselor can help navigate this process.

What’s next if I am at risk?

Once the risk is determined, our team works closely with patients and their primary care physicians to develop strategies for surveillance and management. These could include:

  • Prevention counseling and strategies
  • Colorectal cancer screening
  • Pancreatic cancer screening for high-risk patients
  • Surgical procedures
  • Cancer prevention for patients with inflammatory bowel disease

What’s on the horizon for detecting and preventing GI cancers?

The future for early detection and prevention of GI cancers is bright. While we already have several good tools, such as colonoscopy, we are working to find innovative and less invasive ways to prevent GI cancers. With these advances and the work of our clinic, our goal is for long, healthy lives for our patients and their families.

Sonia Kupfer, MD

Sonia Kupfer, MD

Sonia Kupfer, MD, is a gastroenterologist and an expert in diagnosing and treating genetic disorders including hereditary gastrointestinal cancer syndromes and celiac disease. She serves as director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic and co-director of the Comprehensive Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic.

View Dr. Kupfer's physician profile