Calls for fewer limits on the genetic checks offered by the NHS have been led by a Jewish woman from north London who found she had ovarian cancer soon after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
A new study published in last week’s JAMA Oncology suggests wider screening would save the NHS money and that offering every woman diagnosed with breast cancer genetic screening would save hundreds of lives each year.
At present, however, only those with a specific risk factor – such as a history of breast cancer in close family members – are offered the screening.
Among the Jewish community’s foremost campaigners on this issue is Alison Dagul, and her Hendon-based daughter, 28, who had a double mastectomy aged 26, and who is now planning surgery to prevent ovarian cancer.
Alison was diagnosed with ovarian cancer soon after being diagnosed with breast cancer, but did not find out she had inherited the BRCA1 mutation from her father until after her first surgery. “If I had known what I know now, I would have had a full mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy,” she said.
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UK-based researchers examined data on 11,800 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, the United States and Australia, then modelled what would happen if all breast-cancer patients were tested for the BRCA1, BRCA2 and PALB2 gene mutations, compared to the current limited approach. They found one year of testing could save more than 2,100 cases of breast and ovarian cancer and 633 lives in the UK alone.
Among the lives claimed by ovarian cancer was that of Jewish chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who died from the disease aged 37.
Having had ovarian cancer at such a young age and being of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, she may have carried the BRCA gene mutation that hugely increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer. People with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry are 10 times more likely to carry a BRCA mutation than the general population. One in 40 Jewish women are BRCA mutation carriers, compared to 1 in 800 of the general public.
“Just by being of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage puts you at a high risk,” Alison’s daughter told Jewish News last year, after organising an inspirational photo shoot of women who had had preventative surgery.
In the UK, women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are offered testing to see if they carry a genetic mutation that would increase breast cancer risk, but the same does not happen for breast cancer patients. NHS England said it was expanding genomic testing for cancer patients, adding “the new era of personalised medicine can bring life-changing benefits”.