Angelina Jolie and Breast Cancer
In 2013, Angelina Jolie underwent a preventative double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, with BRCA indicating “Breast Cancer.” A double mastectomy consists of removing both breasts; in 2015, Jolie also opted to remove her ovaries, in order to prevent the early onset of that form of cancer. Testing is recommended if a family member has been diagnosed with breast cancer; in an op-ed written for the New York Times in 2015, Jolie detailed how her mother, grandmother, and aunt, had died of cancer; her positive BRCA1 test increased her chances of developing breast cancer to 87%, and those of developing ovarian cancer to 50%. The BRCA gene mutations are inherited.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are mutations of the BRCA gene that significantly increases one’s risk of developing ovarian and breast cancer. When BRCA functions normally, it acts as a tumor suppressor gene. Testing positive for BRCA1 and BRCA2 means that the gene has been mutated in such a way that negates its preventative effect. However, a positive test result is not a guarantee of a future diagnosis of cancer.
The test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 is a simple genetic test, and can be done with any DNA sample. Certain companies offer at-home genetic testing for the BRCA1 and 2 genes, or the test can be done at the request of a doctor with a blood or saliva sample. However, the majority of those who develop breast cancer do not have the BRCA1 and 2 genes. A full list of the conditions that would recommend an individual for testing can be found online. Knowing which family members have specifically had breast cancer, and their familial distance from them, can help women understand their risks of developing the disease.
Jolie emphasized that it was not solely her diagnosis of the BRCA1 gene mutation that influenced her to have the surgery. Rather, it was the positive result coupled with her family history of cancer increased her chances of getting cancer to an unbearable amount. Jolie’s publicizing of her surgery created a newfound interest in the BRCA1 and 2 mutations and preventative mastectomies. Dubbed “the Angelina Jolie effect,” many women chose to take a similar route to Jolie by removing their breasts in order to prevent the development of breast cancer after testing positive for the gene. However, women who have tested positive for the gene mutation also have the option of taking preventative drugs, which may reduce their risk of breast cancer. High-risk women should consult with their doctors about which preventative strategy is right for them.
The symptoms of breast cancer include a lump in breast tissue, discomfort, nipple inversion, a change in breast shape and size, and abnormal nipple discharge. Women should be screened by a doctor once a year for the disease through a clinical breast exam and mammogram, an electronic test that screens for abnormalities in the breast tissue. Women can perform monthly breast self-exams at home in order to maintain their health. Early detection of breast cancer can make significant difference in increasing one’s chances of survival.