Life & Culture

We must do more to protect ourselves from this cancer in our genes

Last month Angelina Jolie put ovarian cancer firmly on the news agenda.


Angelina Jolie, actress, filmmaker, humanitarian, wife and mother, announced last month that she had had her ovaries removed following her decision to have a double mastectomy in 2013; in doing so, she put ovarian cancer firmly on the news agenda. As the stepmother to three children who lost their mother to ovarian cancer when she was just 52, I felt it was essential that the Ashkenazi Jewish community truly understands the significance of this particular genetic risk. Men, this involves you too because you may carry the gene mutation.

Jolie lost her mother to ovarian cancer in 2007 and screening revealed that she had inherited the same BRCA gene mutation; it is the BRCA gene mutation not the gene itself that is linked to both ovarian and breast cancer - each mutation significantly increases the likelihood that the carrier will develop breast or ovarian cancer. While a normal BRCA gene suppresses tumours, a mutation can fail to prevent uncontrolled cell growth that can lead to malignant tumours and hence the development of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.

Ashkenazi Jewish women are 10 times more likely to carry a BRCA gene mutation. This means they are 80 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer and 50 per cent more likely to develop ovarian cancer than the general population. These genetic mutations do not just carry down the female line but also the male. So men as well as women may pass mutations down to their children, and these men also have a higher risk of prostate cancer and other cancers. Most people do not need and should not be tested for these mutations but if you know your family's history in this respect, on both sides of the family, you will have a greater understanding of the risks. As Jolie said: "Knowledge is Power".

Ashkenazi Jews need to consider the health history of first and second-degree relatives. If one or more on the same side of the family were diagnosed with the same kind of cancer, you may wish to consider being tested for the BRCA mutation gene - it is a simple blood test, though the results can take a few weeks. Testing should only be done having received appropriate counselling and the first person to be screened should be the person with the highest risk - so if you have a relative who has or has had ovarian or breast cancer, they should be asked if they would be tested first. Not everyone who has the mutation will get cancer but if you know you have it, then you can be monitored more regularly and health professionals can be particularly vigilant in these areas.

I am very proud to have recently been appointed as a trustee of Target Ovarian Cancer. This is a national charity which works to save lives and help women diagnosed live their life to the full. Target Ovarian Cancer has launched a new programme called "Knowing the Risks". We want women at risk to be identified. If ovarian cancer is detected at an earlier stage, survival rates of up to 90 per cent would be possible compared with just 43 per cent at present - we are determined to turn these terrible statistics around.

We want to help women to live life to the full

Our programme will train GPs to spot the significant risks that having a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer poses, so that the disease can be detected early. And it will provide robust evidence of the viability of genetic testing for all women with ovarian cancer, so their lives and those of their families can be saved. We will provide information and practical support to women and their families so they feel more informed and more positive about living with cancer and have greater choice and control over their treatment. By 2017, we will reach 3,500 women living with familial ovarian cancer and 2,000 GPs with new training.

The charity was formed in 2008 and relies entirely on donations. Sadly it was not there to help my stepchildren's mother, but I will do all I can, in her memory, to try to turn the tide on the 12 women who lose their lives every day to ovarian cancer in the UK. A wealth of further free information including videos and leaflets on the symptoms, events etc are available at or on Twitter @targetovarian.

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