Angelina Jolie effect needs to extend to men at risk, says expert

Tony and Carolyn Gower renewed their vows less than 48 hours before Mr Gower died.

Tony and Carolyn Gower renewed their vows less than 48 hours before Mr Gower died.

A Ballarat woman whose husband died of prostate cancer at just 53 is appealing for men to learn their genetic history.

Carolyn Gower’s husband Tony died late last month. He carried the BRCA2 mutation, a genetic fault initially only associated with families with a history of breast and ovarian cancer. 

But the same mutation also dramatically increases the risk of prostate cancer for men. Most, like Mr Gower, will die within five years of their diagnosis. 

Mr Gower is one of just three donors worldwide to donate their organs and tissue to a study which could revolutionise treatment for carriers like himself. 

Invaluable legacy: Carolyn Gower's husband Tony donated his body to cancer research. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Invaluable legacy: Carolyn Gower's husband Tony donated his body to cancer research. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

The former bus driver had a history of breast cancer in his extended family, Mrs Gower said.

“He got diagnosed just by accident really. There was no chance of curing him.

“It was bad luck that Tony didn’t know that earlier and could have been proactive younger and maybe caught it when it was at a curable stage but they’re just starting to learn so much about the genes now.”

Mrs Gower said her husband’s donation was a legacy he hoped would help others with the BRCA2 gene. 

The couple had been together for five months when Mr Gower was diagnosed aged 48, and were married for just over four years. Less than 48 hours before he died, they renewed their vows.

He got diagnosed just by accident really. There was no chance of curing him.

Carolyn Gower

“He was always thinking of others with the clinical trial (he took part in), with the research he’s donated to but that’s just the type of person he was.”

Mr Gower’s donation was an “unbelievably generous gift”, Australian cancer consortium kConFab manager Heather Thorne said.

kConFab is already the world’s largest resource for scientists studying the genetic causes of breast cancer. 

Now they are leading the world in how the same genetic fault affects men.

kConFab researchers were the first in the world to link the BCA2 genetic fault with prostate cancer in 2008. The research group has been studying familial links in breast cancer for 20 years.

Carolyn and Tony Gower on their wedding day.

Carolyn and Tony Gower on their wedding day.

“These high risk cancer families can’t think it’s only breast and ovarian cancer in women, this is also impacting men in these families and it’s a really aggressive prostate cancer,” Ms Thorne said.

The BRCA2 mutation can increase the risk of a carrier developing ovarian, breast or prostate cancer by up to 80 per cent.

These high risk cancer families can’t think it’s only breast and ovarian cancer in women, this is also impacting men in these families and it’s a really aggressive prostate cancer.

kConFab manager Heather Thorne

For male carriers the chance of developing prostate cancer is four times higher than the general population. 

Mr Gower’s donation will allow scientists to develop new treatments based on his unique genetic profile.

“We need a repertoire of treatments to combat the cancer,” Ms Thorne said.

“We were able to stop the cancer in people who had the BRCA 2 genetic fault but the cancer has come back so everyone in the world at the moment is saying ‘what genes now do we need to target to stop the cancer from growing?’.

Tony and Carolyn Gower during Mr Gower's treatment for prostate cancer.

Tony and Carolyn Gower during Mr Gower's treatment for prostate cancer.

“We’ve been able to take samples to do very important gene profiling to see what genes now need to be blocked so the cancer cells die so we’re in a really unique position worldwide.”

Early identification of BRCA 2 has seen some women opt for a preventative double masectomy.

Carriers of the mutation are up to 80 per cent more likely to develop prostate, ovarian or breast cancer than the general population. 

Actress and director Angelina Jolie had both her breasts and her ovaries removed after learning she carried the BRCA1 gene. Picture: Getty.

Actress and director Angelina Jolie had both her breasts and her ovaries removed after learning she carried the BRCA1 gene. Picture: Getty.

Hollywood actress Angelie Jolie brought global awareness to a similar genetic fault, BRCA1, when she revealed she had undergone a double masectomy in 2013 to reduce her chances of developing the disease which had killed her mother, grandmother and aunt. Two years later, Jolie had her ovaries removed. 

“We’re discovering more and more, the genomic technology is so powerful these days for not just cancer but all diseases,” Ms Thorne said. 

“With the BRCA2 genetic fault in a male genetic member they need to be very aware of this, seeing their GP regularly and maybe even a urologist because we don’t want these men to develop prostate cancer.”