Nolan sisters diagnosed with cancer days apart. Am I more at risk if my relatives have the condition?

Linda Nolan and her sister Anne are both battling cancer. Linda pictured here in January 2014. (Getty Images)
Linda Nolan and her sister Anne are both battling cancer. Linda pictured here in January 2014. (Getty Images)

Sisters Linda and Anne Nolan have both been diagnosed with cancer and they underwent their first session of chemotherapy together on 5 June.

Following the diagnosis reveal, the pair’s sister Coleen Nolan released a statement through her management on Twitter: “They've beaten it before - they can beat it again. Coleen's brave sisters Linda and Anne sadly reveal they both have cancer again In tomorrow’s papers, here is a preview below. Please keep them in your thoughts and well wishes X.”

Anne, 69, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in April, while her younger sister Linda, 61, found out she has incurable liver cancer just a few days later.

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Following chemotherapy the sisters have lost their hair. They will both have six rounds of the treatment in total.

Both have vowed to beat the illness, which killed their sister Bernie in 2013, when she was aged 52, three years after she was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2010.

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Am I more at risk if my relatives have cancer?

Some types of cancer can run in families, according to the NHS. For example, your risk of developing certain types of breast cancer, bowel cancer or ovarian cancer are higher if you have close relatives who developed the condition.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll definitely get cancer if some of your close family members have it, just that you may have an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer compared to others.

Cancer is a common disease, according to Cancer Research UK one in two people in the UK (50%) is predicted to get cancer at some point in their lives, so many people will have at least one person in their family who has had cancer.

But having a couple of relatives diagnosed with cancer over the age of 60, doesn’t mean there is an inherited cancer gene running in the family.

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What is an inherited cancer gene?

Cancers develop because something has gone wrong with one or more of the genes in a cell, according to Cancer Research UK.

Most gene changes occur during our lifetime, and may happen at random as we get older, or because of something we’re exposed to, such as cigarette smoke. But some can be passed down from a parent, these are called inherited cancer genes.

Being born with an inherited cancer gene doesn’t mean a person will have a higher risk of developing particular types of cancer than other people.

“Cancers caused by inherited faulty genes are uncommon, they make up only 3-10% of cancer cases,” explains Dr Rachel Orritt, health information manager at Cancer Research UK.

“Anyone worried about their inherited cancer risk should talk to their doctor. They can refer those with a strong family history of certain cancers to a genetic counselling clinic.”

According to the NHS it is only likely that a cancer gene is present in a family if:

  • there are two or more close relatives on the same side of the family (your mother’s or your father’s side) with the same type of cancer, or with particular types of cancer that are known to be linked – for example, breast and ovarian cancer, or bowel and womb cancer.

  • cancers are occurring at young ages (before the age of 50)

  • a close relative has had two different types of cancer (rather than one cancer that has spread)

  • one of your relatives has had a gene fault found by genetic tests

Cancer Research UK says that the more relatives who have had the same or related types of cancer, and the younger they were at diagnosis, the stronger someone’s family history is.

This means that it is more likely that the cancers are being caused by an inherited faulty gene.

The Nolan sisters pictured in 1983, from left Linda Nolan, Anne Nolan, Bernie Nolan, Coleen Nolan, and Maureen Nolan. (PA Images)
The Nolan sisters pictured in 1983, from left Linda Nolan, Anne Nolan, Bernie Nolan, Coleen Nolan, and Maureen Nolan. (PA Images)

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Other risk factors

Cancers caused by inherited faulty genes are actually much less common than those caused by other factors, such as ageing, smoking, being overweight and not eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Most cancers develop as a result of a combination of risk factors, which in some cases can include family history.

What if I have a strong family history of cancer?

Cancer Research UK suggests talking to your GP if you think that you may have a strong family history of cancer.

Your GP will ask you about your family and how many members have been diagnosed with cancer. If they think that you might be at increased risk they can refer you to a genetics clinic.

If you have a known gene fault, your doctor may be able to give you an idea of how much your risk is increased compared to the general population.

They may also suggest that you need regular monitoring for particular cancers, or they may suggest treatment to try to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

“The good news is there’s lots of things people can do to stack the odds in their favour,” Dr Orritt says.

“From stopping smoking and keeping a healthy weight to cutting down on alcohol, healthy changes can make a big difference to cancer risk.”

For more information about family history and inherited cancer genes visit Cancer Research UK.

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