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Angelina's Choice - Assessing Your Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Angelina Jolie’s recent op-ed in the New York Times turned a spotlight on the complex factors that inform women’s health decisions when they face a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. She announced that she’d had a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery as a preventive measure against breast cancer. As expected, her announcement drew an outpouring of public attention.

We turned to Dr. Ernestine Bustamante Roman of New Horizons Women’s Care to help us understand better what women can learn from Ms. Jolie’s story.

What is the most important thing a woman can learn from Angelina Jolie’s decision?

First and foremost, know your family history in some detail. If you have immediate family members who have had breast/ovarian cancer, how old were they when they were afflicted? Did their cancer recur? How immediate are they to you?

I’m not a genetic specialist, so I don’t know how common the BRCA genetic mutation is. But with or without the gene, family medical history is the place to start when assessing a woman’s risk factors.

What are some of the other factors that raise your risk level?

  1. If you have a first-degree relative who contracted breast/ovarian cancer. This would be a sister or a mother.
  2. If your first-degree relative was pre-menopausal with an onset of the cancer before they were age 50.
  3. If a male first-degree relative has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
  4. If you are an Ashkenazi Jew.

Angelina Jolie made a radical decision - how effective a strategy is it for avoiding cancer?

It’s extremely effective, although it does not reduce the risk completely. It will reduce a woman’s risk by about 80%. While not 100%, it lowers your risk considerably.

Angelina's Choice - Assessing Your Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Who would be a good candidate to test for the gene? What is your advice for women who are in high-risk categories?

After you have looked in detail at your family medical history, don’t go “willy-nilly” into testing for the BRCA genetic mutation, or any of the other genetic mutations that may heighten your risk. As you educate yourself, it’s very important to get good genetic counseling. It’s important to understand your risk factors in a broader context. You shouldn’t draw any conclusions or make any decisions without good genetic counseling.

Learn more about breast cancer risk factors and the story behind Angelina Jolie’s choice.