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Close family members of people with blood cancer at higher risk

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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30 Aug 2019

A major new study, partly supported by Bloodwise, has found that people with a close family member with blood cancer are at higher risk of developing it themselves.

Scientists looked at the cases of 153,115 people diagnosed with blood cancer in Sweden since 1958 and 391,131 parents, siblings or children to see if they had gone on to develop the disease. They were then able to see that these relatives’ chances of blood cancer were higher than for the general population.

It’s the first research project looking at this in blood cancer overall (rather than in specific types), and suggests the link is strongest in some types of Hodgkin lymphoma; lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma; and mantle cell lymphoma.

This supports previous research, which has shown that having a close family member with blood cancer is a risk factor. This research potentially paves the way for people at higher risk to be given counselling or in future to be offered genetic testing. But the really important message is that people shouldn’t worry unduly. While there is an increase in risk for family members of people with blood cancer, their risk is still small. This study found that just 4.1 per cent of people diagnosed with blood cancer had a close family relative with the disease.

Let’s s take the most common type of leukaemia, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), as an example. According to the paper, the average person has a 0.4 per cent chance of developing CLL at some point in their life, whereas the close relative of someone with CLL has a 2.2 per cent chance.

So it might be alarming to hear the headline figure that people with a close family member with CLL are over five times more likely to develop it themselves. But it’s important to remember that there’s a 97.8% chance that they won’t – the overwhelming likelihood.

It’s also important to say that blood cancer is not unusual in having a link between risk and families. In fact, the family link is weaker in blood cancer than in breast cancer, bowel cancer or prostate cancer.

But if people are worried about this news or aren’t sure what it means for them, they can call our helpline on 0808 2080 888 or get support online.

The research was published in Blood journal. We at Bloodwise fund research at The Institute of Cancer Research who contributed to the study.

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