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Jolie’s procedure shines light on preventative mastectomy

Actress Angelina Jolie in 2005
Photo by Remy Steinegger

In a heartfelt and open editorial appearing earlier today, Angelina Jolie told New York Times readers and the world at large about a major health decision: her choice to have a double mastectomy.

Jolie writes that she carries the BRCA1 gene, which significantly increases the likelihood of a woman getting breast or ovarian cancer. Jolie’s mother died in 2007 after a long battle with ovarian cancer, and the actress said she did not want her children to have the same experience.

“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,” writes Jolie, who said her personal risk for developing breast cancer was estimated around 87 percent.

Todd Tuttle, M.D., chief of Surgical Oncology in the Department of Surgery and member of the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, says while only 5-10 percent of the women in the United States have the BRCA 1 or 2 gene, a preventative mastectomy can drastically reduce their chances of developing breast cancer.

“Preventative surgery reduces the risk by 90 to 95 percent, but it won’t completely eliminate the risk,” said Tuttle. “Some breast tissue will still remain, in places like on the breast bone, under the arms, and even reaching toward the back. Even the most aggressive mastectomy will leave some behind.”

While women with the BRCA 1 or 2 genes can benefit significantly from risk reduction procedures like a double mastectomy, Tuttle cautions that it is not a beneficial treatment for women who show no higher risk of developing cancer.

“Women, especially in the United States, often overestimate their risk of getting cancer,” Tuttle told the New York Times in January. In the general population, women have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer, but those odds vary dramatically based on things like age and overall health.

But for women with this high risk indicator, mastectomy is an important option, and one that can make a significant difference in both life expectancy and peace of mind. Tuttle says he sees dozens of women each year who fit this category, and who benefit greatly from the procedure.

Jolie wrote in her piece that she hopes coming forward and sharing her story, which will also be posted step by step on the Pink Lotus Breast Center website, will encourage more women to ask questions and investigate their own cancer risk factors. She also hopes that, in the future, more women worldwide will have access to preventative testing and treatment.

You can read the entire editorial by Jolie by clicking here.

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