Angelina Jolie’s preventive double mastectomy was all over the news and for good reasons: She is famous, she’s a woman, and she has undergone a pretty intensive surgery to a visible and off photograph part of her body and cancer can be very scary.
Amongst American women of all races, breast cancer is by far the most likely form of the disease. 12 percent of all women in the United States, regardless of race, will develop cancer in their breasts.
But Angelina Jolie had a further reason to worry—a genetic mutation increased her risk from 12 percent to as high as 87 percent. The mutation is of the BRCA gene or breast cancer susceptibility protein. The two mutations, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are highly indicative of breast cancer developing and Jolie had one of them.
BRCA’s job in itself is to suppress tumor growth, but if it’s mutated, it fails at that job. Jolie got her genes tested for the presence of the mutation and when she found it, rather than waiting for cancer to take effect, she removed as much of her breast tissue as possible.
The mutation is found using genetic testing and it might be covered by insurance, but it can still cost a lot.
Jolie’s mother died of ovarian cancer at 56 which is also related to the BRCA mutation, so Jolie elected to have a pretty intensive procedure formed, even before any cancer was found because of that strong familial and genetic history.
Medically speaking, it was unorthodox, but for her it was probably a number’s game. Ultimately, she went from an 87 percent risk to less than five percent without the presence of that tissue.
Now just because the BRCA mutation exists in a mother or a sister, doesn’t mean that you have it if you are related. Additionally, men can also have the mutation but before you all run out and get your genes looked at, it’s pretty rare.
You can get tested, but even Jolie says to be smart about it. Traditionally self-exams are free and as always, catching cancer early is the best cure. If you are worried, the BRCA mutations are commonly found in women of Eastern European descent who have a Jewish background.
Off course, commonly is kind of a misnomer as the CDC found only three to five percent of women will have the mutation at all. It’s also more common in Norwegian, Dutch, and Icelandic people.
Getting a preventive double mastectomy was Miss Jolie’s choice and increasingly common one. From 1998 to 2003, the number has increased 150%. An associate professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School found that of women who elect mastectomies, 70 % of them in the United States will have both breast removed even without a proven medical reason for doing so.
We all know that cancer is pretty scary and this was a pretty extreme way to deal with it, but as awareness for breast cancer is growing with the pink ribbon campaigns, mastectomies are also becoming more acceptable. The cosmetic option for breast reconstruction have come a long way, and likely if she hadn’t said anything, no one would have noticed except for her partner.
As breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in the United States, it’s better to step forward then to not, right?
If you found out you had a high risk of cancer, would you make the same decision Angelina Jolie made or would you follow a more traditional path of cancer treatments?