Women, like Angelina Jolie, with a family history of certain cancers have a higher risk of developing the disease. Thus, if a woman’s mother or sister has had breast cancer for example, her relative risk may be double that compared to a person with no family history.
In a small number of women with a particularly strong family history, the risk of breast cancer may be caused by a mutation in a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. The normal population lifetime risk of developing the disease is around 10 per cent, however, a fault in one of these genes usually confers around an 80 per cent lifetime risk. This was the case with Angelina.
Around 3000 women in the UK carrying these mutations have now had double mastectomy. One of the driving motivations behind Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention is the desire to prevent breast cancer without the need for young women to resort to this measure. However, for those who carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, the current alternative of regular screening and taking Tamoxifen as a preventative measure, may not be enough.
Opting for a preventative mastectomy is an incredibly difficult decision for any woman affected by breast cancer, and is not for everyone. Hopefully, Angelina’s courage in coming forward with her experiences will provide comfort to other women in similar situations. With them, we wish Angelina a long and happy future.
It’s important to remember that 85 per cent of women with an affected first degree relative, such as a mother or sister, will never develop the disease, and over 85 per cent of breast cancer patients have no family history at all.
Women who come from a family where breast cancer has affected several family members should ask their GP for a referral to a genetic clinic where gene testing can be provided on the NHS.