Breast Health Risk Assessment brings personalised health care to UK women

Some women assume that they have a high risk of contracting breast cancer because they have a close relative that has been affected, but this might not be the case. A new genetic test available from BreastHealth UK Clinics will help women to see if they have inherited genetic abnormalities that will increase their risk of breast cancer. Many, like Alice Pope, whose mother and grandmother were both affected, will feel empowered by the findings.

Professor Gordon Wishart, Medical Director of BreastHealth UK, explains:

“Concern about breast cancer is common where women have experience of it in the family. However, only a very small amount (5-10%) of breast cancers are due to inheritance of one of the known breast cancer genes. Some women assume that they are at high risk without having spoken to a medical professional to assess this.

“There is now a simple test available that uses a mouth swab to take a sample of DNA. At BreastHealth UK we combine the results from this test with an assessment of lifestyle, family and personal history to provide a comprehensive personal breast cancer risk assessment. This information allows us to give a woman advice that is tailored to her personal risk.”

The NHS breast screening programme currently begins at age 50. At this age the average risk for developing breast cancer during the next ten years is 2.3%. (This level of risk indicates that in the 50-60 age group, around 1 in 44 women will develop breast cancer.) A woman’s risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, and 2.3% is the threshold at which it becomes ‘worthwhile’ for the NHS to provide screening.

While the ‘average’ woman reaches this level of risk at 50, some women reach this threshold at a younger age and this information is now available from the test results. By providing women with this information, they can make important decisions to manage their individual risk, including starting screening earlier, having more frequent screening, or by making lifestyle changes that may help to reduce their risk.

Alex Pope, 34, whose mother and grandmother both had breast cancer, was concerned about her own risk of the disease. Her doctor reassured her that this didn’t mean that she had a higher risk but Alex was not convinced.

“I went to the BreastHealth UK clinic to get a better understanding of my personal risk. They went through my lifestyle, family and personal history, and took a mouth swab to collect DNA for the risk assessment test that the clinic offers.

The consultant explained that Alex was moderate risk, based on results from the DNA test and questionnaire.

Knowing her personal risk has enabled Alex to be proactive in managing her health.

“I did find it very comforting to understand my own risk. It was all explained to me that I need to be breast aware and have regular screening tests. They explained what screening is available in the NHS and what isn’t. I was shown how to examine my own breasts and what to look for and I was also given advice about my diet."

“Looking forwards, it’s something I’ve got to be aware of. I’ve been thinking I must tell my sister too. If you’re overweight or if you drink too much your risk goes up, so I do need to lose some weight and the usual stuff like that, but it’s just business as normal now really.”

Vicki Lyus, a genetic counsellor for BreastHealth UK, says, “Many women find knowing their personal level of risk to be comforting, even if they are at high risk, because it means that they can take appropriate action, for instance earlier or more frequent screening, or making lifestyle changes such as adjusting diet or reducing alcohol intake. It can also be helpful for mothers that have been affected by cancer as often they are very concerned for their daughters.”

The only genetic test currently available on the NHS is for BRCA1 and BRCA 2 genes, and although mutation of these genes can be associated with a very high risk of breast and ovarian cancer, these genes are very rare and affect a small proportion of the population. This test is only available to those where there is evidence of a strong genetic link and a surviving member of the family able to provide a sample of DNA. This test was not considered appropriate for Alex.

BreastHealth UK can also provide the BRCA test on request without a GP referral, but unlike the NHS test it compares an individual’s genes to a vast database and therefore does not require DNA from a relative. The results are available very quickly (within 3 weeks) which reduces the stress for the patient.

BreastHealth UK clinicians recommend that all women, even those at low risk of the disease, take advantage of the NHS national screening programme when they reach 50 years of age.

BreastHealth UK clinics offer ‘traditional’ screening techniques such as clinical breast examination, mammography and MRI, as well as the latest technologies such as Digital Infrared BreastScan which is suitable for younger women and currently unavailable on the NHS.

To find out more about the Breast Health Risk Assessment test, visit www.breasthealthuk.com/genetic-testing.