In announcing her resignation as a federal cabinet minister and Liberal MP, Judy Foote revealed Thursday that she has the cancer-causing BRCA2 gene and has passed it on to her children.

Foote, who has two adult daughters and a son, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She said she now wants to focus on the health of her family instead of politics.

Although Foote did not disclose details about how the inherited BRCA2 mutation could affect her children, her announcement is bringing the health issue back into the spotlight.

It’s estimated that one in 200 Canadians have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, which means an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer for women, and a higher risk of prostate cancer and other cancers in men.

For example, in the general female population, the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is around 10 to 12 per cent, said Dr. Mohammad Akbari, a scientist at the Women's College Research Institute in Toronto.

“But if a woman is carrying the mutation in BRCA2 genes, that risk jumps to 60 to 80 per cent,” he told CTV News.

In men with the BRCA2 mutation, the risk of developing prostate cancer increases “three- to four-fold,” from an average risk of 10 to 14 per cent to a risk of around 35 to 40 per cent, he added.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, BRCA gene mutations account for about 5 per cent of all breast cancers and 4 to 11 per cent of all ovarian cancers.
People who test positive for BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations have a number of options. Women who are at a much higher risk of developing breast cancer, for example, can opt for preventative mastectomies.

When high-profile figures like actress Angelina Jolie go public with their BRCA gene mutation diagnoses, it raises awareness about BRCA1 and BRCA2 risks, Dr. Akbari said.

Other gene mutation carriers opt for vigilant monitoring with routine mammograms and MRIs to lower their risk of dying from cancer.

Currently, genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations is only offered and covered for people who meet specific eligibility criteria, including a strong family history of cancer.

Researchers at the Women’s College Research Institute, including Dr. Akbari, say they want to make the test affordable and available to all Canadians over the age of 18 who have concerns about their cancer risks.

In March, they launched The Screen Project, which allows interested Canadians to take the BRCA genetic test at a cost of US$165. To take the test, which involves sending a saliva sample to a lab, Canadians must join the Screen Project study and consent to its terms. 

With files from CTV’s medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip