Home » Women's healthcare » How family history knowledge of cancer could save your life

Marie-Claire Platt

Head of Policy and Research, Ovarian Cancer Action

A simple lifesaving tool can help discover if you are at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer — and therefore eligible for a genetic test on the NHS.

If your family has a history of cancer, you should check to see if you could be at risk. That’s the message from Marie-Claire Platt, Head of Policy and Research at Ovarian Cancer Action.

Identifying the gene mutation

“Your family tree is extremely important when it comes to assessing your risk of developing certain hereditary cancers,” says Platt. “For example, 20% of ovarian cancers are caused by gene mutations passed down from either your mother or father; and 15%–18% of these are caused by mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.”

One in 200 of the UK population carries a BRCA gene mutation — that’s an estimated 535,000+ people with increased cancer risk. However, only about 5% of carriers have been identified so far. “To save lives, we need to find many more,” says Platt, “because there is no screening tool for ovarian cancer and survival rates are low.”

One in 200 of the UK population carries a BRCA gene mutation.

How an online tool can save lives

If someone knows they are a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation, they could reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer with preventive surgery.

The only way to know if you are a carrier is through a genetic test — although, to have a test on the NHS, you must fulfil certain eligibility criteria.

However, in 2018, Ovarian Cancer Action launched a Hereditary Cancer Risk Tool to assess your eligibility for NHS testing. “It involves completing a simple questionnaire,” says Platt. “If it finds you are eligible, your GP can refer you to a genetic screening clinic.”

Information for prevention

So far, over 50,000 people have used the tool, but Platt urges all women with cancer in their families to follow suit. “Because no one else is going to make connections between you and your family members who may have had ovarian cancer,” she says. “We want people to have as much information as possible to stop themselves from getting this disease.”

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