Thursday, June 13, 2024
Thursday June 13, 2024
Thursday June 13, 2024

Army rejected teen over breast-cancer gene, sparking discrimination debate



17-year-old Carys Holmes denied entry despite passing tests, due to a family history of breast cancer

A 17-year-old has been rejected by the Army, despite passing all selection tests, because two members of her family had breast cancer. Carys Holmes has a 50-50 chance of inheriting a gene fault from her mother but has not been tested for it yet. A lawyer claims the Army’s actions could be discriminatory and a serious own goal.

The Army said it is reviewing Carys’s case. Carys trained hard for the tough three-day selection process at Whittington Barracks, near Litchfield, Staffordshire. Her work paid off as she passed the fitness and cognitive tasks with flying colours. However, near the end of the process, Carys was taken aside and told she was being rejected because of an “extensive” history of breast cancer in her family.

“I’d quit my job to train for it and everything,” Carys says. “I just felt so crushed, like, ‘This is it – it’s over.’ I put all my dedication into getting in. And then it just felt like something so little like that, it just ruined it all. It really upset me.”

Both Carys’s aunt and mother had the Brca1 gene, which increases the risk of breast cancer. Her aunt died of the disease, and her mother, Rachael, is currently being treated for it. Carys and Rachael asked NHS genetic counsellors to assess Carys’s chances of developing breast cancer should she have inherited the gene. They suggested her risk of developing it by the age of 30 could be 1.9% with the gene and 0.1% without it.

Based on these findings, Carys appealed against the Army’s decision but was unsuccessful. Rachael is hurt her daughter has been rejected because of an unknown quantity. “Having this gene doesn’t guarantee she’s going to get breast cancer,” Rachel says. “And even if she did have the gene, she can take steps against that. It’s really short-sighted of them, bearing in mind how they are crying out for recruits.”

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The Army’s medical policy on recruitment refers to some disorders that can be passed on in families but does not mention inherited breast cancer. People who have been treated for cancer, cured, and discharged from medical care can still join up, the policy states. Over the past five years, the Army has rejected 125,861 applicants, according to the UK Defence Journal – more than 76,000 on medical grounds. Asthma, back, eye, or psychiatric problems can all be grounds for rejection.

Centre for Military Justice director and lawyer Emma Norton says Carys’ case is very unusual. “If the Army is operating a blanket policy of automatically excluding applications from all women who have a history of breast cancer in their family, that would appear, on the face of it, to be unlawful because it is discriminatory and may even amount to a human-rights violation,” she says. “And this is at a time when the Army really should be doing all that it can to improve its reputation amongst women and encourage more and more young people to join up. It does seem to be a very serious own goal.”

Wendy Watson, who set up a national helpline for people with a family history of breast cancer, agrees Carys’ case is one of sex discrimination, as men can also carry the faulty gene and develop the disease. Some women with the gene have preventative mastectomies (breast removal). If a candidate appears at risk of a specific genetic disorder, the occupational physician responsible for recruit selection will assess the risk and its likely impact on the candidate’s health and safety in a military workplace – normally without the need for genetic testing, the Army says.

“We’re not going to discuss the medical details of any Army applicant without their specific consent,” an official said. “However, we can confirm that we’re reviewing the circumstances of this case and have contacted the individual to explain what’s happened and apologize. The issue is now being managed by the Army’s head of recruiting, personally.”


The rejection of Carys Holmes by the Army over a potential genetic risk for breast cancer raises significant issues of discrimination and fairness. Politically, this case could prompt a reevaluation of military recruitment policies. The Army must balance operational readiness with ethical considerations and legal frameworks. This case could lead to political pressure for more inclusive and non-discriminatory recruitment practices.

Sociologically, Carys’s rejection highlights broader issues of gender discrimination. Women, who can inherit the Brca1 gene, face unique health challenges. This case underscores the need for policies that do not unfairly penalize women for genetic predispositions. Moreover, it raises questions about how society views and handles genetic risks, particularly for young women aspiring to serve in the military.

Economically, the Army’s rejection of qualified candidates like Carys could have long-term costs. The military invests significant resources in recruiting and training. Rejecting candidates based on potential genetic risks could lead to a loss of talent and increased recruitment costs. Additionally, the legal battles and potential compensation for discrimination claims could be financially burdensome.

Locally, the impact on Carys and her community is profound. Her dedication to joining the Army reflects her commitment to serving her country. Local support for her case could galvanize community advocacy for more just recruitment practices. The emotional and psychological toll on Carys and her family also cannot be underestimated, as it affects their perception of fairness and opportunity within the military.

From a gender perspective, the case raises important questions about equality in the military. If the Army’s policies disproportionately affect women, it reflects broader societal gender biases. Ensuring that recruitment policies are equitable for all genders is essential for creating a fair and inclusive military environment. This also includes recognizing that men can carry the same genetic risks and ensuring policies are consistently applied.

Examining this issue through the lens of minority and marginalized groups reveals further complexities. Discrimination based on genetic predispositions can disproportionately affect marginalized communities that may already face barriers to healthcare and genetic testing. This case highlights the need for equitable healthcare access and policies that do not further marginalize these groups.

Theoretical perspectives, such as the social determinants of health, emphasize the importance of considering broader societal and environmental factors in health outcomes. In Carys’s case, the Army’s decision reflects a narrow focus on genetic risk without considering the full context of her health and capabilities. Policies should consider the individual’s overall health, potential preventive measures, and the broader societal implications of genetic discrimination.

Army’s rejection of Carys Holmes based on her family’s history of breast cancer gene highlights significant issues of discrimination, fairness, and policy. Addressing these issues requires a multifaceted approach, considering political, sociological, economic, local, gender, and minority perspectives. Ensuring that recruitment practices are just and inclusive is essential for a fair and equitable military.


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