Pathologists are urging Australians at high risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer to be aware of their family history and get appropriate genetic testing if needed.

Breast and ovarian cancers are two common types of cancer affecting women in Australia. Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer among women, with an estimated 20,000 new cases expected to be diagnosed in 2023.

Ovarian cancer is less common but more deadly, with a five-year survival rate of only 49%.

Prostate cancer is the most diagnosed cancer across Australia, and it is estimated that one in six men will receive a diagnosis by age 85.

The risk of developing these cancers is higher in individuals with a family history of any of this cancer group, as they may carry genetic variations that increase their susceptibility. It is estimated that about 5-15% of breast and ovarian cancers, and 1-2% of prostate cancers, are hereditary.

Pathology Awareness Australia ambassador, Dr Graeme Suthers, Genetic Pathologist, commented on men’s breast cancer risk, “There will be many people who are surprised to hear that, as both men and women have breast tissue, breast cancer can also occur in men. The men at increased risk are those with a family history of the cancer, in female or male relatives.”

The genes most commonly associated with hereditary breast, ovarian and prostate cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who carry specific variations in either gene have a 30-60% higher lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and a lifetime ovarian cancer risk of about 40% with BRCA1 and 18% with BRCA2.

Men that carry the BRCA2 gene variation have a 7-8% lifetime breast cancer risk, and those carrying either BRCA 1 or 2 variations are five times more at risk of developing prostate cancer than those who do not.

Considering this, pathologists are urging Australians with a family history of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer to speak to their GP, as a specialised genetic test could help determine if they are at higher risk of cancer.

A genetic assessment involves a blood test that can detect inherited variations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, both of which are associated with an increased risk of developing the cancers.

Dr Suthers, said, “Changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can also occur during the development of a cancer, that is, in someone who does not have an inherited variation in either gene. The presence of a variation in either gene, whether it is inherited or found only in the cancer tissue, can be important in the choice of cancer treatment for the patient. In addition, if the genetic variation is shown to have been inherited, this finding also carries major implications regarding the risk of cancer for close relatives.”

If a close relative with breast or ovarian cancer is found to carry a BRCA1 or 2 variation, family members would be eligible for genetic testing rebated by Medicare.

Dr Suthers highlighted the value of a person knowing about inherited variations in genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. “It has been said that “knowledge is power”. If you know that you have inherited a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic variation, there are effective things that you and your doctor can do about this. Knowing that you have such a genetic variation is not bad news: it is good news because you can now act. Being aware of your cancer risk can be lifesaving.”

Early detection and prevention are key in the fight against breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.

By visiting their GP to discuss their risk, individuals with a family history of these cancers can take control of their health and potentially reduce their risk of developing these diseases.

Jane Hill, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Australia commented on the importance of those with a family history knowing their risk;

“One of the biggest known risk factors for ovarian cancer is the presence of specific genetic mutations that can be inherited and passed down from family members. It is important to discuss your family history with your doctor to best understand your personal risk and what this may mean for you.

Ovarian cancer is Australia’s deadliest gynaecological cancer. There is no early detection test, and the symptoms can often be vague and put down to other more benign causes. Due to this, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at more advanced stages. Whilst we cannot prevent ovarian cancer from occurring, we can help minimise the risk in those who may be at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer due to a family history and known genetic mutations”.