Angelina Jolie has this week announced that she has undergone a preventive double mastectomy after being tested and found to carry an inherited genetic fault which significantly increases her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
A family history of breast or ovarian cancer means having one or more blood relatives who have, or have had, breast or ovarian cancer. These relatives could be on either the father’s or mother's side of the family.
Because breast cancer is common, many women will have a family history by chance. However, some women with a family history may have inherited a faulty gene which increases the risk of cancer. The women most likely to have inherited a faulty gene are those with the strongest family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
About five per cent of the 14,000 Australian breast cancer cases diagnosed each year involve a faulty gene. Some of these are genes are called BRCA1 and BRCA2. If a woman has inherited a fault in one of these genes, she has a high chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer; although it does not mean that she is certain to develop cancer.
For the small proportion of women who have a strong family history, who carry the faulty gene and have been assessed to be at significantly increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer, preventive mastectomy is the most effective option to reduce their risk.
Other options include risk-reducing medication and specialist surveillance for early detection of breast cancer.
“Women should be assured that only a small number of women in Australia would find themselves in the situation Angelina Jolie is in,” said CEO of Cancer Australia, Professor Helen Zorbas.
If you are concerned about your family history and your risk for breast and ovarian cancer, speak to your doctor about an assessment.
Resources for women:
- Your risk and breast cancer: online risk calculator
- Information for women about family history of breast and ovarian cancer
- Early detection of breast cancer.
Resources for health professionals:
- Online familial assessment tool
- Advice about familial aspects of breast cancer and epithelial ovarian cancer
- Risk-reducing medication for women at increased risk of breast cancer due to family history.