A Question Of Health

My sister has breast cancer - am I at risk too?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

IS IT GENETIC?

Q. My sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer and my grandmother died from it, too. I have heard that cancer runs in families. Am I at risk, and is there anything I can do?

A. Although it is hardly possible to pick up a newspaper without reading something about the "breast cancer gene", the truth is that breast cancer is not usually caused by a faulty gene. In a small number of families, however, there is a faulty breast cancer gene passed from generation to generation that greatly increases the risk of developing cancer.

Two breast cancer genes have been discovered, called BRCA1 and BRCA2. BR stands for "breast" and CA stands for "cancer". When these genes are not working properly, because of a mistake or mutation in the genetic code, the risk of developing breast cancer goes up quite substantially.

The risk of developing breast cancer for the average British woman is about one in 10. People who carry mistakes in one of the BRCA genes have a much higher risk of breast cancer - the most pessimistic estimates put their risk at about eight in 10. If your sister and grandmother have had breast cancer, there is a possibility that their cancers might be due to an inherited gene. Ask your doctor to refer you to either a cancer family history clinic or a genetics centre for a full assessment. For information about inherited breast cancer contact CancerBacup ( www.cancerbacup.org.uk; 0808 800 1234).

SMEAR TEST WORRY

Q. When I was having a cervical smear test, the nurse said I had some benign cysts on the cervix. She seems unconcerned by these, and the test result has come back as normal. I have never heard of cysts on the cervix. What are they? Are they caused by sexually transmitted infection?

A. The surface of the cervix contains tiny mucous-secreting glands called nabothian glands. If these become blocked, small cysts develop on the cervix. Your cysts are likely to be nabothian cysts. These frequently appear after childbirth andare very common. If the nurse is certain that the cysts are nabothian cysts, there is no need for you to worry. They are not caused by infections.

Have your say: Readers write

BM from Cheshire has harsh words for the pharmaceutical companies that charge too much for antihistamines:

People should not be buying Clarityn (10mg loratadine) under its branded name. Tesco, Superdrug and stores such as Wilkinsons all offer "generic" 10mg loratadine for 99p- £1.49. The same applies to cetirizine, branded as Zirtek. I suspect that many consumers do not realise this. I have seen both branded products at up to £4.45 a packet.

Send questions and suggestions to A Question of Health, 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax 020-7005 2182; e-mail health@independent.co.uk. Dr Kavalier cannot respond personally

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