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Angelina Jolie and her decision to undergo a double mastectomy

Angelina Jolie announced on Good Morning America that she was very happy that she decided to go public with her decision to have a preemptive double-mastectomy to slash her risk of developing breast cancer. In her words her decision has “helped expand the discussion on women’s health.”

Why did Angelina Jolie make her decision?

Angelina Jolie credits her mother’s battle as a motivator for her decision. Marcheline Bertrand died of ovarian cancer in January 2007, at age 56, after an eight-year battle with ovarian cancer. More recently Bertrand’s younger sister, Debbie Martin, also died of breast cancer at the age of 61.

Both of these deaths impacted Jolie’s decision. Angelina Jolie announced on May 14th that it was her mother’s death and the “presence of a defective gene, BRCA1, which increases her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer, that prompted her to have preventive surgery.” Experts suggest with this gene mutation her risk of getting breast cancer could be as high as 90%.

Angelina Jolie creates global awareness for breast cancer

According to recent medical reports, statisticians who track statistics on breast cancer services have noticed an increase in inquiries about the BRCA screenings. Now doctors say patients are beginning to ask about the procedure and seem to be more aware of their choices if they do have the gene mutation.

Although most praise Jolie’s decision and believe her choice has added valuable information to the discussion for breast cancer detection, her case is relatively rare. The American Cancer Society notes that there is approximately 5% of percent of breast cancer cases which can be linked to a faulty BRCA gene.

What does this mean for most women? Although awareness has been increased it could lead to unnecessary tests for some women and others who are found to have the gene may believe a mastectomy is a necessary treatment. Doctors are concerned it could lead to unnecessary surgical procedures which could be too aggressive for many women.

Doctors suggest more education and guidelines are needed to screen patients who really need the test. For instance, most women will only need the test if they have a “strong family history of breast cancer where close relatives have been diagnosed with the disease at a young age.”

Another concern is that some women who get the testing and are found not to have the genetic mutation can get a false sense of assurance that they do not have to be concerned about breast cancer. Anxiety can also be created if the gene is found and the medical community doesn’t really understand its significance.

What can be done for women who test positive for a high-risk BRCA gene? One thing they should do is get regular mammograms and other specialized tests, especially if they do not choose to have a mastectomy.

Regardless of all the medical and public opinions, Angelina Jolie seemed to make a brave choice for her and her kids to ensure that she, unlike her mother, might be around to see them grow up and have children of their own.
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