DNA testing websites are ‘scaring women into asking for breast removal surgery’

Women are being frightened into asking for breast removal surgery by incorrect results from online DNA testing.

An expert has warned cheap tests for the BRCA gene mutations, which increase the risk of breast cancer, are giving out false results and worrying women.

The BRCA mutations were made famous by Angelina Jolie, who had both her breasts surgically removed when she discovered she was at risk of cancer because she carried a mutated version of the gene.

And while tests are available online for as little as £25, they may not be reliable, ’cause more worry than benefit’, and cost the NHS money in follow-up tests.

The BRCA gene mutations were made famous by Angelina Jolie (pictured last week at a meeting at the Government Palace in Peru), who had both her breasts surgically removed when she found out she had the mutation and was at particularly high risk of getting cancer

Professor Anneke Lucassen, chair of the British Society of Genetic Medicine, made the comments at a meeting in Parliament, according to The Sun.

She said: ‘You have to ask whether such testing causes more worry than benefit.’

The tests claim to be able to test for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations using a simple cheek swab or saliva sample.

The Health + Ancestry test by the website 23andMe, for example, offers to test for the genetic mutation as part of its £149 screening package. 

Nobody has said or suggested that 23andMe gives false results.

The mutations can raise a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer before the age of 80 by up to 72 per cent.

But the online tests often throw up false results, experts have warned, and don’t take into account family history, which also significantly affects the risk.

Professor Lucassen said false positive results meant women went to see their GPs, terrified they would get cancer.

Doctors then felt pressured to send them for more testing, costing the NHS money – and some women are found to not be high risk at all.

Even women who are found to have the genetic mutation may not be high-risk enough to require the same drastic breast removal surgery as Angelina Jolie. 

DNA testing website 23andMe offers the BRCA testing as part of its Health + Ancestry screening which costs £149 ¿ but the company has not been named as one giving false results

DNA testing website 23andMe offers the BRCA testing as part of its Health + Ancestry screening which costs £149 – but the company has not been named as one giving false results

‘A risk-reducing mastectomy is a big operation,’ Professor Lucassen added. ‘You have to remove all of the breast tissue and surgeons say there is a significant complication risk.

‘It’s not something you should be undertaking lightly.’

The cancer risk of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations has been known about since the 1990s, but it is thought 80 per cent of people with them do not even know they have it.

Research from Geisinger Medical Center and Yale University in the US revealed only 18 per cent of people who had cancer-related gene mutations knew about them.

Experts involved in that study warned online DNA testing, even when accurate, examined ‘only a tiny sliver of a window of the risks’.


A double mastectomy is the removal of both breasts.

This is a way of treating breast cancer and is often done to women who are at a high risk of the disease returning after therapy.

The treatment may also be suitable for women who are unable to have radiation therapy, have a tumour larger than 5cm across or have a mutation, such as in the BRCA gene, that increases their cancer risk.

Most women stay in hospital for one or two nights but are able to return to their regular activities within around four weeks.

Side effects can include pain, swelling, a build up of blood or fluid at the surgery site, limited arm movement and numbness in the chest or upper arm. 

After surgery, some women may wish to have the breast mound rebuilt to restore its appearance in breast reconstruction surgery.

Some patients may require other treatment after a mastectomy such as radiation, chemo or hormone therapy.

Source: American Cancer Society

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