Cancer link for women with grandparents from Orkney island

Scientists find those with ancestral link ten times more likely to have certain cancer genes.

Scientists have discovered a link between cancer and women with an ancestral connection to an Orkney island.

Genes that cause ovarian and breast cancer are ten times more likely to be found in women whose heritage can be traced to Westray than the rest of Scotland, according to Aberdeen University.

Experts have been looking at the prevalence of the cancer-causing gene BRCA 1 in those who have a grandparent from the island.

It’s hoped their work will help save lives through earlier detection of those at risk from the disease.

Karen Scott, who lives in Kirkwall, took part in the study after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018.

She said: “The option to have this test for Orcadians is huge, you don’t want your daughters or family to go through cancer.

“I said ‘yes’ immediately to take part because you realise the importance of early detection, and that you have options before you have a diagnosis.”

Scientists at Aberdeen and Edinburgh University found that one in 100 women from those sampled in Orkney carry the genetic adaptation that causes the diseases.

Professor Zosia Miedzybrodzka said: “This figure is ten times higher than in the general population.

“We realised that if we focused on people with Westray grandparents, we get the vast majority of those who have the gene alteration, then we can look at further screening and treatments.”

The Friends of ANCHOR has now provided £11,000 funding so those in Westray can test for the gene using a saliva sample.

Women do a spit test which will be sent to Aberdeen to have its DNA extracted and screened to look for the genetic abnormality which causes the cancers.

Professor Henry Watson, from the charity, said: “For people who are identified as having this abnormality, there will then be the option of enhanced screening, and in some women they may even consider a prophylactic mastectomy.”

Testing has also been welcomed by Clan Cancer Support, whose chief executive Fiona Fernie said: “We are advocates of early screening tests, but if this has raised feelings of anxiety or raised emotions from previous cancer diagnosis, we want people to get in touch with us for support.”

NHS Grampian genetics clinic is running a helpline for queries about the gene variant linked to breast and ovarian cancer for those who have grandparents from Orkney.

The number to call is 01224 553940. Email enquiries can be directed to

GPs will not be able to assist with gene testing and any questions about this research and next steps should be directed to the helpline.

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