TUESDAY, May 14 (HealthDay News) -- Hollywood film star Angelina
Jolie announced Tuesday that she has undergone a double mastectomy
because she carries a genetic mutation that greatly increases her
risk of potentially fatal breast cancer.
She said she began the process to have both of her breasts
removed in early February because she lost her mother, actress
Marcheline Bertrand, to breast cancer when her mother was just
Jolie, 37, revealed details of her surgery in an op-ed article
The New York Times. Writing about her mother's nearly
10-year-long battle with breast cancer, Jolie said: "She held out
long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them
in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to
know her and experience how loving and gracious she was."
Jolie, who has six children with her companion and fellow film
star Brad Pitt, said she often finds herself trying to explain to
her children about the disease that killed her mother. "They have
asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not
to worry, but the truth is I carry a 'faulty' gene, BRCA1, which
sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian
cancer," she wrote.
The BRCA1 and related BRCA2 genes belong to a class of human
genes known as tumor suppressors. According to the U.S. National
Cancer Institute, in normal cells, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes help
to maintain the stability of a cell's genetic material -- called
DNA -- and help prevent uncontrolled cell growth. Mutation of these
genes has been linked to the development of hereditary breast and
An estimated 12 percent of women -- or 120 out of 1,000 -- in
the general population will develop breast cancer during their
lives. But in women with a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, the
risk of breast cancer increases dramatically. Approximately 60
percent of women -- 600 out of 1,000 with these genetic mutations
-- will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Said another way, a woman
who has inherited a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation is about five
times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who doesn't
have such a mutation, according to the U.S. National Cancer
These genetic mutations are most commonly found in Jewish women
of eastern European descent. Also, Norwegian, Dutch, and Icelandic
peoples have higher rates of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, according
to the cancer institute.
A double mastectomy involves removing as much "at-risk" tissue
as possible to reduce the risk of cancer. The procedure does not,
however, guarantee complete protection against cancer, according to
Dr. Stephanie Bernik, chief of surgical oncology at Lenox Hill
Hospital in New York City, called a double mastectomy "the best
option for someone who is BRCA-positive."
"The risk of cancer is extremely high and we know that you can watch them, but there is no guarantee that you will catch the cancer at an early stage," she said. "If you have the ability to prevent a cancer that's probably the best route," Bernik explained.
"Not everyone wants a prophylactic mastectomy and they don't all do that," Bernik said. "But women should certainly be informed," she added.
Bernik said more women are opting for the procedure. "The
reconstructive options have improved dramatically over the past 15
years. So women can at least feel confident knowing that if they
remove their breasts they will be left with a very good to
excellent cosmetic result," she said.
Writing in the
Times, Jolie said, "My doctors estimated that I had an 87
percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian
cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each
"Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy."
Jolie said the process of having her breasts removed was
finished by late April, and included the reconstruction of both
breasts with implants. "There have been many advances in this
[reconstruction] procedure in the last few years, and the results
can be beautiful," she wrote.
According to the NCI, genetic testing can reveal whether a woman
carries a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. There are benefits to such
testing, whether a woman receives a positive or a negative result.
"The potential benefits of a negative result include a sense of
relief and the possibility that special preventive checkups, tests,
or surgeries may not be needed. A positive test result can bring
relief from uncertainty and allow people to make informed decisions
about their future, including taking steps to reduce their cancer
risk," the agency said.
For her part, Jolie said: "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
"For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options. I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices."
To learn more about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, visit
Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
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