Cancer can be an emotive subject, particularly if you or family members are diagnosed. According to statistics provided by the World Health Organisation, breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people per year worldwide. If one of our parents carries a faulty gene, then we have a 50/50 chance of inheriting it too. Scientists have identified 3 genes which could identify a risk of developing the breast cancer, BRCA1, BRCA2 and TP53. A fault in one of these genes could result in an 80% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, whereas the normal population who do not carry the gene would only have a risk of around 10%.
The defective gene can be passed down either maternal or paternal lines, and men are also at risk of developing breast cancer if they have the faulty gene. However, it is not common knowledge that a faulty BRCA gene could also raise a man’s risk of prostate cancer by between 10-25%. A woman’s risk of breast cancer can range from 45-90% in carriers of the gene and ovarian cancer can be raised to 15-45%.
Thankfully, most people who have a relative who develops breast cancer will not be at increased risk. Despite this reassuring fact, in families where 3 or more cases of breast or ovarian cancer have been diagnosed in close relatives, your family history could be considered significant. Therefore, if you are concerned, speak about this to your GP. They could refer you to your nearest Family History Clinic. You may be offered specialised genetic counselling and risk assessment. Genetic testing will probably only be offered if the family history is strong enough and there is a living, affected family member who could be tested first to see whether they have the affected gene.
The hereditary risk of breast and ovarian cancers was a topical subject in light of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy and hysterectomy which has been widely documented in the press. Following the early deaths of numerous family members to cancer including her mother, grandmother and aunt, she underwent genetic testing which identified she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer. Following detailed counselling Angelina opted to have a double mastectomy and later underwent removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes. She has since been advised her risk of developing breast cancer had fallen to under 5%. As a consequence of the removal of her ovaries, Angelina is now experiencing early menopause and takes HRT to combat her menopausal symptoms.
Becky Measures, a local radio presenter had a preventative double mastectomy at the age of 24 following genetic testing for BRCA and has appeared in a television documentary about her surgery. Her mum, Wendy Watson was the first woman in the UK to undergo a preventative double mastectomy in 1992 and was found to a carrier of the BRCA gene after discovering that many close relatives had received a diagnosis of cancer