Angelina Jolie puts cancer gene in the spotlight

July 02, 2013

When actress Angelina Jolie announced that she was waging a preemptive war on cancer, she also started a national conversation about the “faulty” gene that put her at high risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer.

“I have feelings of great admiration and gratitude toward Angelina Jolie for stimulating this dialogue,” says gynecologic oncologist Dr. Leslie Randall of the UCI Health Ovarian Cancer Center.

Last month, Jolie revealed that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy earlier this year after testing positive for a cancer-causing mutation of the BRCA1 gene. Her doctors told her that she had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.

Now that her breast reconstruction is complete, Jolie, 38, has said that she plans to have her ovaries removed next.

Should you be tested?

Jolie's decisions now have some women wondering if they, too, should be tested for the genes.

"If a patient has these cancers in their personal or family history, they should discuss that with their healthcare provider," says Dr. Randall. At that point, the provider will determine whether referral to a geneticist is recommended.

Most cancer cases are not inherited. Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are believed to cause no more than 10 percent of all breast cancer cases and up to 15 percent of all ovarian cancers. Yet those women who carry the mutations have a significantly higher risk for developing the diseases.

That’s why advocacy groups and professional societies work to get the message out about genetic testing, assessing family risk and preventive surgery. But they don’t have the public’s ear like a celebrity does, Randall notes.

“This is especially true for a celebrity identified by her femininity to openly disclose personal decisions that might affect that persona.”

Jolie’s family history of cancer is strong: her mother died of ovarian cancer in 2007, and her maternal aunt died of breast cancer just two weeks after Jolie’s announcement.

“She watched her mother die,” says Randall. “Ovarian cancer is a harrowing condition that is nearly uniformly fatal after years fighting.”

Calls to the Ovarian Cancer Center to learn about testing for the BRCA genes have not increased just yet, but Randall knows that women can identify with Jolie.

“She has created a friendly face for an otherwise seemingly esoteric condition.”

If you have questions or are concerned about your genetic risk of getting cancer, contact Gynecology Services at 714-456-7009 for an appointment.