Angelina Jolie decided to have a double mastectomy because she inherited a high risk of breast cancer. What’s remarkable is that all of a sudden people are questioning whether they should be investigating their own cancer risk. Cancer services are fielding many more queries about cancer testing than they were before her announcement. (20th June: I posted this ten days ago, and I’ve just updated the title in response to what has become known as the “Angelina effect”.  Cancer Council Victoria has just announced a 1033% increase in the number of calls to its helpline.)  This is despite the fact that what we know about breast cancer risk that led to Ms Jolie’s decision has already been publicly available for many years. Clearly it was not out there in a way that people took much notice of.

Better communication of science will prevent people from missing or misunderstanding  important information like that.

Is cancer the most common genetic disease? According to The Cancer Genome Project website it is. This might sound scary. Does it mean you have a high risk of cancer if one of your parent has had it? Not necessarily. “Cancer genetics” means one thing to most people and another to cancer scientists. To understand all this we need to understand something about genes and the the role they play.

Genetics is usually understood to mean the characteristics that you inherit from your parents. These characteristics are encoded in our genes,  which are instructions written in a special language called DNA. Every cell has a copy of the set of instructions, and can read them. Genes control our physical features, and the way our bodies’ function, for example how they grow. Genes in the germ cells (eggs and sperm) are passed on from parent to child. Genes in the embryo are passed on to every new cell as we grow. The new cells include eggs and sperm, and their genes are passed on again to the next generation.

The genes can get damaged – this can happen by chance, or it can be caused by environmental factors. Usually this damage is not a problem for a number of reasons. But sometimes the damage is a step in the development of cancer. Usually more than one of these cancerous genetic changes has to occur before cancer is triggered. For breast cancer to develop, these errors need to occur together in the same breast cell.  So cancer can arise in any part of the body, but one of these faulty genes is only inherited if it’s in a germ cell.

If the faulty cancer-promoting genes are inherited, cancer is more likely, because fewer additional gene errors are needed before cancer is triggered. Ms Jolie is reported to have a faulty or mutated BRCA gene. A mutation in a woman’s BRCA gene (BRCA1 or BRCA2) means a 60% lifetime risk of breast cancer, compared to a 12% risk in women without the mutation (National Cancer Institute).

What’s a genome anyway? Scientists studying the genes talk about the genome. This simply means all the genes in an organism – a plant, animal, microbe, you or me. And if you think small-scale, every cell has a genome. Genomics is the study of a genome, be it  the whole organism or a single cell. So “genomics” is really a less ambiguous term than “genetics” when you’re talking about cancer, but to most people it’s jargon. I think this will change as genomics becomes a much more prominent part of health care, including cancer treatment. So to answer the question posed above, yes, cancer is the most common genetic disease, but not in the generally understood sense.

There’s a huge amount of research behind our knowledge of BRCA genes and our ability to use this information to prevent or treat cancer. Cancer is a very diverse disease and we are nowhere near understanding all the gene errors behind all the various types of cancer. The more we discover the better equipped we will be to prevent, detect and cure cancer.

(With thanks to Qian Yu for helpful comments)