On May 14, 2013 Angelina Jolie Pitt published an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled “My Medical Choice” outlining her choice to have a double preventive mastectomy after learning that she had a defect in the BRCA1 gene, a gene typically associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women. It was this submission that prompted me to write my second post for HealthComU about letting personal family history guide decisions related to genetic testing. Two years later, Angelina Jolie has published another op-ed piece, “Angelina Jolie Pitt: Diary of a Surgery”, this time detailing her choice to have her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed.
Although the public may typically associate mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes with breast cancer, they also account for around 15 percent of ovarian cancer cases, overall. Angelina Jolie knew of this additional risk of ovarian cancer when she was tested and ultimately decided to have the double mastectomy. However, it wasn’t until a blood test suggested an inflammation somewhere (a possible early warning sign of cancer), that she decided to seek more answers. She had originally opted out of ovarian surgery back in 2013 because of the severe, immediate consequences (near-immediate menopause). Scans came back clean showing no signs of tumor development, but the choice for Angelina Jolie was clear; it was time to move forward and have the surgery.
Angelina Jolie opted for surgery to decrease the likelihood of her developing the diseases, but she is transparent in saying that those choices may not be the best for everyone else, and that furthermore, it is impossible to remove all risk.
The story has, of course, garnered plenty of attention on Twitter, and it is climbing the Times list of “most emailed stories.” Kelly Osborne shared with her fellow “The Talk” panelists that she too has the BRCA1 gene mutation and also plans on have preventive surgery when the time is right. Her mother, Sharon Osborne, was diagnosed in 2002 at the age of 50. Current guidelines recommend preventive surgery happen 10 years prior to the earliest onset of cancer in a female relative.
It really is no secret that when a celebrity does something, good or bad, the public tends to watch and listen. Following the op-ed, Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto tracked data related to those seeking genetic screening 6 months prior to the op-ed and 6 months following the op-ed. In one measure they found that there was a 105 percent increase in the number of women being referred for genetic testing.
This “buzz” around Angelina Jolie’s decisions is being called “the Angelina Jolie effect.” No doubt, her recent admission, and this latest round of surgeries, will reignite the public’s interest in genetic testing—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many people believe that because Angelina Jolie spoke up, genetic testing became a less “hush hush” conversation and a discussion about being more proactive about one’s health was ignited.
So get involved in the conversation. Whether it’s about breast cancer or ovarian cancer, the point is to create dialogue about what we all can do to take a more active role in preventative health care.