Page last updated at 00:28 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 01:28 UK

'A faulty gene caused my cancer'

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Vanessa and husband David
Vanessa was at increased risk because of her heritage

The news was not good. Cancer survivor Vanessa Serota was told that a genetic test had found she had a 60% risk of developing the disease again.

She had already had two tumours in one breast. That breast had been removed.

The test showed that Vanessa, a member of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, carried a faulty copy of the BRCA1 gene, which increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

Vanessa said: "They were calling on Ashkenazi women to come and get tested, because we were thought to be more at risk of having the faulty gene.

If there is a pattern in your family of breast cancer or a related cancer - like ovarian cancer or an unusual childhood cancer - and it starts to ring alarm bells then you should talk it over with your GP
Jackie Harris, Breast Cancer Care

"A friend and I decided we had nothing to lose so we had the blood test. They said I had the gene and that they could refer me for genetic counselling if I wanted it.

"I did not have any family history of breast cancer, although it turned out that one of my mother's cousins had had breast cancer - we didn't know much about her though as she had emigrated."

But Vanessa, who lives in London, found later that ovarian cancer, which killed her mother, is also linked.

After counselling from the Royal Marsden cancer hospital, Vanessa, 53, decided to have her other breast and her ovaries removed.

Cancer risks

It proved a wise decision because tests on her ovaries detected the early signs of cancer.

Vanessa has made her daughter, who is 22, aware of the risks to her future health.

But doctors do not plan to call her in for tests until she is in her early 30s.

Everyone carries the BRCA 1 and 2 genes, but it is only when you inherit a faulty copy of the gene that you are at higher risk of developing certain cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer
Only 5 to 10 % of the 46,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year are due to genetic causes
If you do inherit a faulty copy of the BRCA gene, you have an up to 80% higher risk of developing breast cancer than other women

Ashkenazi Jewish people originally came from North and Eastern Europe, but have emigrated all over the world.

Most of the UK and American Jewish population have Ashkenazi heritage.

Due to the tradition of marrying within the Jewish population, the BRCA gene faults have been passed between generations.

The exact figures are unknown, but it is estimated that one in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women carry the faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

It is estimated they are 10 times more likely to carry the gene flaws than the rest of the population.

'Bad luck'

But Jackie Harris, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care said that while some women - like Vanessa - were at an increased risk because of their heritage, most cancers were isolated cases.

The charity has produced a new booklet, Breast Cancer in Families, to try and dispel some of the myths around what hereditary factors may lead to an increased risk of developing the disease.

Breast screening
Those at risk can get extra surveillance

Ms Harris said that a family history of breast cancer was more likely to be a case of "bad luck" than a faulty gene, as hereditary breast cancer caused by genetic mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 account for only 5-10% of cases of the disease.

"It is very common for people to over-estimate the risk because somebody in their family does have breast cancer. But when someone in your family has had breast cancer, you then have a family history of breast cancer. It does not necessarily mean that your own personal risk is increased.

"If there is a pattern in your family of breast cancer or a related cancer - like ovarian cancer or an unusual childhood cancer - and it starts to ring alarm bells then you should talk it over with your GP.

She added that genetic testing is only be offered for those at high risk.

"There is this common belief that you can go and just get tested, but it is really difficult to do and can lead to a lot of distress."

'Breast cancer in families' is available to order free from the Breast Cancer Care website or by calling 0808 800 6000.

Gene test to tailor cancer care
26 Sep 03 |  Health
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