Family history of bowel cancer linked with reduced risk of recurrence

In collaboration with the Press Association

People who have a family history of bowel cancer and who are undergoing chemotherapy appear to have greater chance of recovering from the disease, new research has found.

The effect appears to be greater the more relatives with the disease a person has.

Figures show that around 16 to 20 per cent of bowel cancer patients have a close relative with the disease, and studies suggest that being closely related to someone with bowel cancer can double a person's risk of developing the disease themselves.

Until now, little research has been done into the impact of family history on disease recurrence and survival in bowel cancer, however.

Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston examined the link between family history of bowel cancer, and recurrence and survival in 1,087 patients who were undergoing chemotherapy for bowel cancer.

Of these, 195 patients (17.9 per cent) had at least one close relative with the disease.

Just 29 per cent of these patients had a recurrence or died during the study period, compared with 38 per cent of patients with no family history of the disease.

The risk of cancer recurrence alone was reduced by 26 per cent in patients with a family history, while the risk of death was reduced by 25 per cent.

In addition, the researchers noticed that the more family members with bowel cancer a patient had, the greater the apparent benefit in terms of cancer recurrence and survival.

For example, patients with two or more affected relatives had a 51 per cent lower risk of cancer recurrence or death than patients with no affected relatives.

Publishing their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers noted that more research is required to determine the mechanisms by which family history affects the prognosis of patients with bowel cancer.

Their current thinking is that there may be some genetic factor that is inherited along with the genes for bowel cancer, but which increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.

Writing in an accompanying editorial, Dr Boris Pasche from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago wrote: "If these intriguing findings are validated in other studies, family history may well become a new prognostic factor in colorectal cancer."

The researchers now plan to undertake further work, in the hope that their findings could benefit all cancer patients.