Who can forget the image of fearless archaeologist Lara Croft dangling from a rope two stories high, a gun and knife wedged in thigh holsters, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting enemy? Actress Angelina Jolie made being a strong woman look effortless. Now, faced with a potentially life-threatening challenge, she’s showing a new kind of strength.
In a concise and breathtaking New York Times Op-Ed, Angelina shared a deeply personal part of her life journey that will not only alter her destiny but that of legions of women who may take her words to heart. After witnessing her mother’s decade long battle with ovarian cancer, Angelina sought answers to her own risk through genetic testing. Indeed she was found to carry the BRCA1 (breast cancer susceptibility gene 1) mutation.
Normally this gene helps to maintain the stability of DNA or genetic materials in each cell and prevent any abnormal cell growth. The BRCA1 mutation disrupts this process and increases the lifetime risk of breast cancer to between 55-85%, and that for ovarian cancer 20-60%. A mother of six children, and faced with these sobering statistics, Angelina decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. At some point in the future, she will most likely undergo a removal of her ovaries as well.
Much like her predecessor former First Lady Betty Ford did in 1974 when she publicly disclosed her mastectomy to treat breast cancer, Angelina decided to share her own journey. Why did she go public and what does it mean to you? In her own words, “I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.”
Now openly in the public forum, her dilemma raises a number of questions. First and foremost, who should get tested for this genetic mutation? It’s important to note that the BRCA1 (and BRCA2) mutations are responsible for 5-10% of all breast cancers and 10-15% of ovarian cancers, primarily in white women. In other words, they’re not common.