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Cancer gene: Four sisters from Irish family undergo double mastectomies

Four sisters from one Irish family have undergone double mastectomies after they discovered they had an 80pc chance of developing breast cancer.

Self-employed businesswoman and mum-of-three Bronagh Conlon (43), who lives in Drogheda, said that they opted for the drastic move after they tested positive for the BRCA1 gene.

The breast cancer gene mutation also means that Bronagh and her sisters -- Mary (45), Caroline (44) and Bernie (41) -- had a 50pc chance of developing ovarian cancer. To pre-empt this, two sisters had a hysterectomy and the other sisters had a salpingo-oeserectomy, which involves the removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

The Conlon family have now decided to speak of their experiences with the gene in a bid to highlight the problem and increase awareness about genetic testing.

"Two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer -- 10 years prior to that my sister Mary had breast cancer. When Mary had it, we knew that my late father Arthur's mother had breast cancer and an aunt, but we didn't connected it to his mother," Bronagh explained.

Research into whether cancer is genetic has been ongoing for a number of years -- new research is putting up to 15pc of all breast cancers as genetic. But for some time, it was not believed that the gene could be passed down from the father's side of the family.

"When I was told, they suggested it might be connected," Bronagh said.

After her diagnosis of cancer, Bronagh underwent two operations at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin -- she had a lumpectomy and her lymph nodes were removed. She then underwent a course of chemotherapy, followed by a course of radiotherapy at the Dublin hospital.

When her year of treatment was up, her consultant suggested she see a geneticist at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin.

"I went for the test in Crumlin in April of last year. Two months later, the results showed I tested positive for the gene. The geneticist then said it would be in my family's interest if we all got tested.

All of Bronagh's siblings have since undergone tests as have her late father's siblings. There is a 50pc chance that the gene will be passed on to members of the family. "We were just unfortunate that we all got it," Bronagh explained.

"Having the gene means there is an 80pc chance of developing breast cancer and 45pc to 50pc of ovarian cancer. We've all had bilateral mastectomies [which is the removal of both breasts] since," she explained.

Their youngest brother Bernard (39) has also tested positive for the gene.

A fifth sister Teresa (42) and their eldest brother David (46) are currently awaiting their results. Bronagh, who kept on running her business, The Real Irish Food Company, throughout her illness, has no regrets about the action she took to ensure the cancer wouldn't return.

"As far as I'm concerned I'm 100pc cured and it means I can get on with my life. I've been through chemo and radiotherapy and I'm undergoing surgery this Wednesday for reconstruction in St Vincent's Hospital.

"I've spent a year on cancer treatment and I've spent a second year on the gene. My poor mum Kathleen has seen the four of us have eight operations in one year. Our lives have revolved around breast cancer for the past two years.

"We want to get to the end of this year, close the door, and get back to reality. We're looking forward to working on something for future generations," she said.

The Conlons decided to go public on their experience to highlight the increasing incidence of young people being diagnosed with the disease.

"For me it was a real no-brainer. You have the gene, you get rid of the danger.

"But it's different for someone in their 20s, who mightn't have met their partner yet or have had kids. You have to make a really, really big decision on how you're going to treat your body because you are living with a gene that is a constant threat to your life.

"It's a really hard decision to have your breasts removed or your ovaries removed and go into immediate menopause while you're still young.

"What we would like to see happening is increased awareness of the gene, firstly from a testing point of view, and secondly, from a counselling point of view," she said.

"We have had a lot of young people on the website who are very anxious.

"My own daughter is 15 and is really worried -- she can't get tested until she is 18," she added.

Not only is the family trying to increase awareness, they are also attempting to raise more money for research in the area.

"Maybe in the next ten years there will be some kind of tablet they can take or an injection that will stop the cancer from developing for the children and parents who are currently worried about the gene," said Bronagh.

For further information, visit or Action Breast Cancer on The Action Breast Cancer helpline is 1800 30 90 40

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