Angelina Jolie’s Decision: BRCA Genetic Mutations and Preventive Mastectomies

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Angelina Jolie By now, you’ve probably all heard about Angelina Jolie’s announcement in the New York Times that she tested positive for the BRCA-1 genetic mutation which dramatically increased her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer–an 87 percent chance of breast cancer and a 40 percent chance of ovarian cancer, to be exact. Her very public announcement shared intimate details about her journey and generated much-needed discussion around this topic.

Like many in her situation, Jolie opted to have a double mastectomy to help decrease her chance of ever developing breast cancer. This procedure was followed by breast reconstruction. As you may know, her mother fought a decade long battle with ovarian cancer and ultimately passed away from the disease in 2007.

I don’t think the cancer community could have asked for a better spokesperson for this issue. Many women are afraid to have their breasts or ovaries removed because they feel their femininity will be taken away. Now that one of the most beautiful women in the world has fearlessly chosen to undergo this procedure, her story has hopefully helped to calm the fears in other women struggling to make this decision.

Given her celebrity status, Ms. Jolie’s story has obviously brought a lot of attention to the topic of genetic mutations and preventive mastectomies. To help answer some questions that have been raised, we went straight to the source–our own genetic testing experts and breast cancer specialists. Yesterday, we held a Google+ Hangout featuring this panel of experts to help explain the decision Jolie made and what factors play a part in determining a woman’s genetic risk for breast cancer.

Leading the panel was Laura Panos, MS, CGC, a genetic counselor at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center. The panel also included Elizabeth Jekot, MD, a radiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano; Rachel Zent, MD, a breast surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas; and Sanjay Oommen, MD, an oncologist on the medical staff at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth. Rounding out the panel was Paola Gerber, a 35-year-old mother of two who recently underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction after testing positive for the BRCA-1 genetic mutation as well.

The group discussed many topics surrounding this issue, but one of the most important takeaways was their advice to people who have cancer in their families–talk to your doctor about genetic testing. Even if the cancer (specifically prostate cancer) is on your father’s side of the family, it can still be passed onto his daughters in the form of breast or ovarian cancer. If any female in your immediate family has had breast or ovarian cancer or even extended family such as grandparents, aunts or cousins, you may be at an increased risk.

Among the many interesting facts we learned through this Hangout, one of the most surprising was that only 10-15 percent of all breast cancer cases are genetic. For the remaining 90 percent, the cause is unknown.

The moral of this story is to know your family history of cancer and get familiar with your body. If anything seems different or concerns you, call your doctor.

If you weren’t able to watch the Hangout live,  you can watch the recorded version below. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or send a direct message to our Sammons Says editorial team.

If you’re looking for more information about breast and ovarian cancer or genetic testing, visit BaylorHealth.com. You can also call 1.800.4BAYLOR.

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