Gene Cancer

Reporter: Andrea Burns

Sheryl says "well I've taken some fairly dramatic steps to try and get to the little old lady the time I was in my teens, my mother and my 3 aunts had been diagnosed with breast cancer and they all died tragically very young." It's preventative medicine in the extreme. Mum Sheryl Fewster's had two ovaries and one breast removed - just in case she got cancer. "The average person wouldn't know and my husband doesn't care, so it doesn't matter at all - and you're alive - you're alive, yes."

If Mother Nature had had her way, Sheryl mightn't be. Despite regular screenings, eight years ago, a cancerous tumour was found in one breast. She chose a radical option. "I decided that my best chance for long term survival was to have a double mastectomy and indeed the doctors I was talking to at the time, agreed" Given her family history, Sheryl says it was out of pure curiosity that she went for genetic testing. "I suspected I probably did have a genetic mutation but I wasn't sure"

As if a diagnosis of breast cancer wasn't devastating enough, doctors say there's also a strong link between breast and ovarian cancers. Making it even worse, ovarian cancer is often referred to as the silent killer - there can be few, if any, symptoms. For Sheryl, it was a risk she wasn't prepared to take. "After talking it over with my husband and family, and realising when you're in your late 40's there's probably not a great deal of need for your ovaries, I made the decision to have them out as well, that seemed the most sensible thing to do"

Genetic counsellors confirmed Sheryl had the mutant BRCA 1 gene in her system and told Sheryl it'd given her an 80 per cent chance of contracting breast cancer. Of course, that'd already happened. But what was even more shocking - that also meant a 40 % chance of also getting ovarian cancer. Sheryl says "that is not sort of the odds you want for your health, is it? I thought if I had those odds to win the lotto it would be fantastic, if someone said you've got a 40% greater chance than the average woman in the street of winning lotto, you'd want to stand in that queue and indeed after speaking to a gynaecologist that specialises in this kind of work, I thought really the only option was to have my ovaries out.."

"Now being able to do a genetic test to tell the person about their own genetic makeup and define the risk for them is an important and valuable tool" the Health Department's Simon Towler says it's just one tool in compiling a family health history. "it is just a blood test in an individual and it's so easy to do and genetic testing will become increasingly more routine it is expensive though, doing it for everyone doesn't make sense - doing it for those who're at risk is very good sense - it gives you confidence to know what the issues are that you're dealing with" For Sheryl Fewster, genetic testing's meant, unlike her mum, she'll probably now have the chance to grow old. "Becoming a wrinkly crinkly old lady and having grandchildren sitting on the back verandah, having years of doing nothing, of really just enjoying a lifetime of achievement"

The Department of Health is running a series of free seminars over the next three months for people interested in learning more about collecting a family health history.

The details for the first seminar are as follow:

Time: 9.00am-11.00am

Date: Wednesday 28 th March 2007

Location: Meeting Room, Osborne Park Community Centre

11 Royal Street (near cnr of Main St) Osborne Park

For more information or to register for this or a later seminar, please contact Ms Joanna Brisbane (08) 9323 6641 or

Resources to help in the collection of a family history are available from: