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Angelina Jolie’s Disclosure: Perspectives from a 20 Year Old

Guest Blogger, Elana Bengualid, writes about her thoughts on the “Angelina Effect“:iStock_000020400344Small (1)

Angelina Jolie is one of the world’s most prominent actresses, and is also a statistic of the 1 in 500- 1 in 800 people who have an increased risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer due to a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Therefore, when she valiantly shared her story with the public it undoubtedly created an immediate medical and cultural phenomenon.

It is evident that Jolie has inspired many to be proactive about their genetic health as the labs that test for the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer mutations have experienced a dramatic increase in the demand of test orders since her story was published in The New York Times in May. Most notably, Jolie’s decision to undergo a double mastectomy consequently led to about 250,000 Google searches on the prophylactic surgery in just one day, greater than the amount of people who will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Jolie’s story is empowering for she was courageous in taking appropriate steps to decrease her risk of breast cancer from 87% to about 5%, and through her journey she was able to change the image of this somewhat daunting process by exuding confidence, and becoming a public example which others can emulate.

However, at what age should one confront this information? How will Jolie’s actions influence young men and women who have similar family histories of breast and ovarian cancer? It is important to note that genetic counselors do not normally recommend that a person get tested before the age of 25. Recommendations for screening and preventative surgeries for high risk start at the age of 25, for the patients would not be able to do anything with the information except process and share it with family a member (which is important too!).

As a summer intern for the Program for Jewish Genetic Health, I was privileged to able to shadow the genetic counselors. One of the cases I observed was counseling for a 23 year old woman whose mother had passed away from breast cancer at age 39. The patient had been waiting to get tested for the BRCA mutation since her mother’s diagnosis, four years prior. Although young for testing, the patient was mature and her determination to confront this situation with the utmost diligence was admirable. Seeing the strength with which this young woman, three years older than I, pursued genetic counseling was inspiring. She was empowered to be proactive about her health, and that unwavering resolve is a quality that everyone, no matter what the situation, can learn from.

Personally, I do feel that it is extremely important to know if an individual is a BRCA mutation carrier not only for that person’s health, but also for their family members’ health. Regardless of what is considered the “right” age by medical professionals, certain individuals may be emotionally and psychologically ready to undergo testing at an earlier age. For these young women, it is amazing to have a public figure like Angelina Jolie serve as a role model and give them someone to relate to who has already experienced this, and persevered with grace.

Elana is a summer intern for the Program for Jewish Genetic Health. She is a junior at Barnard College and is majoring in Spanish and Latin American Cultures. 

Men don’t have ovaries, but…

men brcaI was at a party this past weekend and I overheard one man saying to another, “No, you don’t have ovaries.”  Mystified, I jumped into the conversation, either to get in on the joke or to provide some basic biology input.  It turns out that one of those men was saying that he wanted to go for BRCA testing, which prompted the other one’s “interesting” retort.

And thus arose my opportunity to educate what soon became a whole bunch of men!  The man who was interested in BRCA testing shared that he had a strong family history of a variety of cancers, and also knew that men could be BRCA mutation carriers.  But not too many of the other men there knew the latter.  Part of this stems from the fact that when we hear about BRCA, we usually hear about breasts and ovaries, see the color pink, and, most recently, associate all of this with Angelina Jolie (the “Angelina angle” is where the whole conversation between the two men started).

I reminded the group that men are equally as likely to be BRCA carriers as are women.  And that the chance of being a carrier is about 1 in 500 in the general population, and about 1 in 40 for individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage (regardless of personal/family history of cancer).   I informed them that male BRCA carriers have increased risks of several cancer types including male breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma, among others.  Finally, I told them that BRCA carriers have a 50% chance of passing the mutation onto their offspring, be those male or female offspring. Not wanting to push my luck, but sensing that I still had a captive audience, I directed them to our Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer lesson on www.GeneSights.com).

Shortly after, the conversation drifted back to party small talk.  But, I knew I had had my moment, and also my material for a new blog.

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