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When TV and genetics meet: Reflections on Grey’s Anatomy and BRCA

dna tvGuest Blogger, Allison Grant, reflects on the difficult decisions patients face following the identification of a BRCA mutation. 

In the middle of January I began watching, or as I will shamelessly admit, re-watching, the television series, Grey’s Anatomy. After being wooed by the drama and attractive doctors during my first time watching, I was able to focus more on the “medicine” and on medical ethics the second time around. To my surprise and delight, an episode in season two, Let It Be, closely followed the case of a woman named Savvy who was found to carry a BRCA mutation. Although Savvy did not have cancer, she had seen ovarian cancer take the lives of her mother, sister, and cousin. Savvy and her husband traveled to Seattle to seek advice from their close friends and doctors, the Shepherds, and to decide whether or not to move forward with surgery. Although her husband disagreed, Savvy eventually opted to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, oopherectomy, and hysterectomy (removing both breasts, ovaries, and the uterus). The decision was not made lightly, and was made only after considering all of the statistics, risks, and consulting with appropriate health care professionals, including a genetic counselor.

I applaud Shonda Rhimes for writing and producing this episode in a medically accurate way that, in my opinion, also did a great job of showcasing how a critical medical decision such as this one impacts interpersonal interactions and relationships. Different opinions, and the subsequent social and emotional interpersonal hardships that result, were presented through Savvy’s relationship with her husband, as well as with one of her doctors.

As I was watching this episode I was pained by the stress felt by Savvy, the tension that it created in her marriage, and the difficult anticipation of the life-altering surgeries she was about to endure. For a few seconds I questioned my unwavering belief that knowledge is power. If Savvy had not known about her BRCA mutation, she would not have been facing difficult decisions and these hardships (a fact that some people believe argues against genetic testing in the absence of compelling risk). But I took a step back and looked at this case from a wider perspective, and apparently so did Shonda Rhimes. Personally, I do believe that, in most situations (including this one), knowledge is power. I believe that medical education and awareness about one’s own health are critical components to leading a healthy life. To turn a blind eye when science is offering a chance to proactively enhance one’s health and life expectancy is a private choice, but one that I would argue is made out of fear and a lack of understanding of the risks that can be avoided with the benefit of crucial, and now available, medical information. This sentiment guided Savvy’s experience. After meeting with her gynecologist and genetic counselor, she became empowered to take charge of her health and made an informed decision that she felt was best. In reflecting on her decision she states, “I know what I’m losing. I get it. But think about what I’m gaining. My life. This gives me a shot.”

That is why I love my job–why I love working with professionals trained in genetics, who promote the sentiment that knowledge is power. We give people a shot.

Allison Grant is currently the study coordinator for the Program for Jewish Genetic Health‘s BRCAcommunity Study. She will be attending medical school in the fall. Learn more about BRCA testing at BRCAcommunity.com

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