Ovarian Cancer - does family health history indicate whether you are more susceptible to the disease

Annie Chillingworth discovered that she had inherited a faulty BRCA gene

Annie Chillingworth discovered that she had inherited a faulty BRCA gene - Credit: Archant

Ovarian cancer isn’t as well-known as other female cancers and yet it is the fifth most common - with more than 7,000 diagnoses in the UK each year.

Almost one in five (17%) women with ovarian cancer carries a BRCA 1/2 gene mutation. We all have BRCA genes but the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer if you have a BRCA gene mutation increases from one in 52, to one in two, according to medical research charity Ovarian Cancer Action. BRCA mutations also increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

Annie Chillingworth, 50, lives with her husband and children in Sherborne. She discovered that she has a BRCA 1 mutation.There was a long family history of breast and ovarian cancer in Annie’s family and because of this she had yearly breast checks from the age of 27. For a long time she suspected she may carry a faulty BRCA gene but didn’t feel informed enough to push for testing.

“From the first time I became aware that they’d identified the BRCA gene in my family I asked at my check-ups if it would be possible to be tested. But the answers were always unclear,” said Annie. “I also asked about the link between ovarian cancer and breast cancer, again they were unclear about the need for screening.”

Annie was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in 2009. “A part of me felt like my diagnosis was inevitable, given my family history,” she said. “For a long time after I was diagnosed I felt very angry. I had been so well positioned to catch my ovarian cancer early. If I had been better informed, I could have insisted on being screened for ovarian cancer too. If I had known my BRCA status I could have taken preventative measures.”

After having her womb removed in 2009, Annie went onto have a preventative double mastectomy in 2010. She says the BRCA issue needs more attention and is pleased that high profile women like Angelina Jolie – who’s also had a preventative double mastectomy – are talking about BRCA and the implications of being a carrier.

While nearly 90 per cent of women know of Jolie’s story and understood her decision to undergo the double mastectomy, according to Ovarian Cancer Action only one in ten were then prompted to look into their own family history of breast or ovarian cancer.

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“I can’t help but wonder whether the years of chemo and heartache could have been avoided had I known my BRCA status,” said Annie. “I am grateful to still be here and I’m grateful that my 18 year old daughter hasn’t inherited this awful genetic mutation. I pray that my sons haven’t either.” Currently aged 13 and 16, Annie’s sons will be tested when they’re older.

Annie’s advice to any woman who may suspect something is wrong is to be persistent and get checked out, also ask relatives if there is a history of cancer in the family. “Be as informed as you can, learn the symptoms. And, most importantly, listen to your body. After all, you know it better than anyone else.”

To explore your family history and assess your BRCA risk visit ovarian.org.uk/brca-risk-tool***


The four main symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

• Persistent stomach pain

• Persistent bloating or increased stomach size

• Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly

• Needing to urinate more frequently

The key features of these symptoms are:

• Their persistency - they don’t go away

• Their frequency - they occur most days

• The symptoms are new - they started in the last 12 months

• The symptoms are unusual - they are not normal for you



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