Abstract Semi-structured exploratory interviews were carried out with informants who had at least one relative with a potentially heritable cancer (breast, prostate or colon) to investigate their risk perceptions towards a family history of cancer. The findings reveal that informants did not appear to feel at risk of cancer as a result of having a living first-degree relative with the disease. They often undertook an active and supportive interest in their relative's illness in response to their relative's diagnosis. Relatives frequently emphasized the physical and lifestyle differences between themselves and their relatives (especially with their siblings) to illustrate why they did not feel concerned about their risk status. However, the death or anticipated death of a relative provoked a change in attitude as this event brought their own susceptibility more into focus. Having a relative with cancer was often an insufficient reason to feel concerned about personal risk, because a family history of the disease was often placed within a wider social context. It is concluded that many people who have living first-degree relatives with cancer may not perceive themselves as being at risk of inheriting the disease, and could make limited demands on genetics services.