Angelina Jolie praised after double mastectomy to reduce breast cancer risk

Actress Angelina Jolie recently had a preventive double mastectomy after learning she had inherited a genetic mutation that likely would have led to breast cancer. Jolie revealed her surgery in a column in The New York Times on Tuesday:

“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”

Jolie has been praised for her forthrightness and her faithfulness to the science of breast cancer, Emily Wax and Lena Sun report:

The op-ed by Jolie in Tuesday’s New York Times about her decision to remove her breasts and therefore reduce her chances of getting breast and ovarian cancers, was in many ways more shocking than a cancer diagnosis itself, especially in a society in which a Hollywood superstar’s appearance — specifically Jolie’s breasts — is seen as a public commodity. But, this is a fact that Jolie’s now proudly dismissing as defining her or her value.

The Reliable Source reports on responses to Jolie’s announcement from public officials, activists, and other celebrities. Most women, however, probably should not undergo the test that identified Jolie’s dangerous BRCA1 gene, writes Sarah Kliff at Wonkblog:

Researchers estimate that 0.11 to 0.12 percent of women in the general population carry either of the BRCA mutations. The prevalence is higher among certain ethnic groups, such as Ashkenazi Jews, where it is estimated that 2 percent of women carry the mutation. . .

The United States Preventive Services Task Force and other groups do not think that the BRCA screening is appropriate for women without a history of breast cancer.

The test is expensive, and even women who do carry mutations might not need surgery.

Melinda Henneberger writes about her mother’s decision to have a preventive double mastectomy 47 years ago, when the procedure was still relatively new:

Though genetic testing wasn’t available then, she’d had many benign breast tumors, and had been advised that she was likely to develop breast cancer if she didn’t get out ahead of it. “I didn’t think I had a choice,” she told me Tuesday. After surgery, she certainly did, though — and the one she made was to go around speaking to any women’s group that would have her, in and around our small town in Southern Illinois.

A teacher and antique dealer, she’d never really done any other public speaking, but went on the road with just her handy prop — a silicone implant — and the message that women did not have to be “mutilated” post-mastectomy.

Her witness was certainly powerful stuff for me, and I grew up knowing that you do not have to be a movie star to make a difference; just jump in the car with your implant, your information and your sense of humor, and you are good to go. (Read the rest of the column here.)

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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