Breast cancer and genetics

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Woman examining her breasts, breast cancer
The link between cancer and genetics has hit the headlines a lot in recent years, with celebrities including Kelly and Sharon Osbourne, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Heaton and Anastacia having spoken out about their experiences - but what should you do if you think you might be a carrier too?

Here, we explain the connection between cancer and genetics, and the facts you need to know about everything from getting tested to possible surgery.

The link between breast cancer and genetics

According to Cancer Research UK, having a history of cancer in your family doesn't necessarily mean that you're at a higher risk of getting it. Inherited genes actually only cause around 5-10% of cancers. And even if you do have a faulty gene passed on, it doesn't mean you are definitely going to get cancer.

The genes in question are BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53 and PTEN. Everyone has these genes, but they can mutate and develop faults, which are passed on through families. The risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer is greatly increased in a woman carrying a fautly gene, as much as 45-65% higher. Not every family that has a history of these cancers will necessarily carry these genes, and not every woman who carries one of these harmful genes will develop breast or ovarian cancer.

However, if you do have a strong family history of breast cancer, it's a good idea to get tested so that you're aware of your increased risk and will know to keep an eye out for any signs of cancer. Depending on your age, you may also be offered more regular screenings to check for any cancerous cells.

How to get tested

You can speak to your GP who can advise you on whether getting tested is right for you. To get tested they'll refer you to a specialist clinic, where a sample of blood will need to be taken, and sent to a lab which specialises in these tests.

Having a test can have a big impact on your life but also on other members of your family, so it's important to understand your options and be sure that you want to know the results before you get tested.

Cancer Research UK says: 'If you think you might have a family history of cancer, you should see your GP. Remember that cancer happens by chance in most cases, and is not due to an inherited faulty gene. If your GP thinks you might have a faulty gene, they will refer you to a genetic specialist, who will look at your family history in detail. Genetic testing is not straightforward, and it can take months for the results to be available.'

7 out of 10 women would do the same

A YouGov poll has found that 7 out of 10 British women would undergo a double mastectomy if they discovered they were at high risk of developing breast cancer. The news comes after Angelina Jolie revealed that she underwent the procedure, after being told by doctors she carried a faulty gene which gave her an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer.

Angelina's risk of developing breast cancer was a terrifying 87% before
the double mastectomy, but since the op, her risk of getting the disease
is now less than 5%.

Continued below...

If you found out you had a high risk of developing breast
cancer, would you do the same? Let us know in our comments section


More on breast cancer

- Lynda Bellingham has breast cancer: Read the full story
- Everything you need to know about breast cancer
- Video: How to check your breasts

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Karen Taylor

I found out last October that I had inherited, from my mother, the BRCA2 gene mutation. This came as a shock after 45 years of never giving it a though! My mother developed ovarian cancer at the age of 58 and 8 years later is still fighting. She has never had problems with her breasts and neither had my grandmother, who also carries the gene and is 89 years old, so their was no indication that her cancer was genetic. Only the death of 3 out of 11 of my mother's cousins from one family prompted a family member to get checked. The gene was discovered. I was devastated when I first found out, but to be honest there are worse things of inherit and I now feel is a position where I can be proactive. I do worry about passing this gene onto my family, but by the time they are young adults, who knows where gene therapy and genetic discoveries will be at! I have to park that one for now. I underwent a total hysterectomy in April to greatly reduce my risk of developing this disease. I can only do what I can now by living a healthy lifestyle and living life. I am glad I found out, rather than burying my head in the sand and pretending that I was bound to have my mother's good gene. Better to act now with regular screening than to ignore and find a lump. I think genetic and gene therapy will be able to do predictive testing one day and save many people from getting this horrible disease. I have just found out that my brother does not carry the same mutation and therefore his 3 girls are safe.

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