Hereditary Cancer



What is Cancer? 

The body is made up from millions of cells that are constantly dying and being replaced. Normally, cells divide in an orderly and controlled way. Cancer occurs when a cell divides and multiplies too rapidly. This produces a lump of abnormal cells known as a tumour. Tumours are either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). There are 200 different types of cancer and early detection can greatly increase the chances for successful treatment. 

Hereditary Cancer


  • Most cancers are sporadic and are largely due to chance and external factors like the environment and lifestyle 
  • Between 6-19% of cancers are familial, meaning there is a strong history of cancer in a family. Some types of cancer are more strongly familial than others – breast, colon, thyroid and ovarian. Having a family history may increase you risk of breast cancer by 20-30% 
  • Around 5% of cancers are linked to faulty genetics/genes 
  • The two most common faulty genes linked to breast cancer are called BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. The faulty BRCA gene can be inherited from either the maternal or paternal side of the family 
  • Carrying a faulty BRCA gene can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer: 

With the BRCA 1 gene there up to an 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 40-60% risk of developing ovarian cancer 

With BRCA 2 there is up to an 84% risk of developing breast cancer, a 20% risk of developing prostate cancer, a 20-30% risk of developing ovarian cancer and 3% risk of pancreatic cancer.  9% male gene carriers develop male breast cancer 

  • These faulty genes have a 50% chance of being passed on to children of a carrier, male or female. 
  • Around 559 women in Northern Ireland have been tested positive for the BRCA 1 or 2 gene 
  • Preventative surgery can be an option for women who carry the BRCA 1 or 2 gene 
  • Research has shown that in general, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet can lower your risk of developing cancer. Thirty minutes of daily physical exercise can reduce your risk of breast cancer by at least 20%. Carrying excess weight can increase your risk of cancer – having a body mass index of over 30 increases your risk by 25% 

(This information has been derived from Prof Morrison, Consultant in Genetic medicine, Belfast City Hospital and his genetics team) 


Next Steps 

If you are worried about hereditary cancer and fit any of the criteria listed below we recommend that you visit your GP who can assess your situation and where appropriate refer you to a family history clinic (if related to breast cancer) or a genetics clinic at the hospital. They will take a full family history, assess your risk and if necessary carry out genetic testing. 


  • one first degree relative (i.e. mother, father, daughter, sister, brother) diagnosed before the age of 40 
  • two first degree relatives diagnosed before the age of 50 (on the same side of the family) 
  • three first or second degree relatives (on the same side of the family) 
  • one first degree male breast cancer 
  • a known BRCA gene carrier 

Support Available

Action Cancer offer free counselling and complementary therapy services to anyone who currently, or in the past, have attended the family history clinic or the genetics clinic.  We also offer specialist services such as scar therapy, Bowen/Emmett therapies, Acupuncture and group exercise programmes such as Pilates and Yoga. 

We recognise that going through the process of genetic testing can be very stressful for the whole family. It can also sometimes be a lengthy process. Our services are there to support you by providing a listening ear and therapies to help you deal with the emotions and stress/tension that you are facing. We do not provide genetic testing but act as an additional support service to you whilst undergoing this process and/or dealing with the emotional effects of gaining the results. 

Our support services are available regionally. 

    Action Cancer provides…

    Early Detection

    Breast screening services and health checks available from the Big Bus and Action Cancer House in Belfast.

    Support Services

    Complementary therapy, acupuncture, counselling, life coaching, peer mentoring; and our Positive Living Programmes are available for those impacted by cancer in order to enhance quality of life and learn coping strategies.


    As a local charity with a focus on cancer awareness, prevention and detection the health promotion team deliver a range of services and programmes to schools, communities and workplaces across Northern Ireland.