Doctors: Women with breast cancer gene, like Jolie, have options

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Sometimes, it takes a celebrity to bring an important topic to the forefront, and that is what Angelina Jolie has done in revealing her double mastectomy. Actress Angelina Jolie announced in a New York Times op-ed article on Tuesday, May 14th that she underwent a preventive double mastectomy after learning she carries a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which sharply increases her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Dr. Jodi Brehm, a breast surgeon with Wheaton Franciscan got a call early Tuesday morning, asking whether she had heard about Jolie. Dr. Brehm hadn't, but she soon took a look at Jolie's NYT op-ed piece.

"There's a lot of fear around genetic testing for what the implications of what the results might be, so I think this is fantastic that it's getting the word out," Dr. Brehm said.

Experts say only a small percentage of women eventually diagnosed with breast cancer have the BRCA1 gene.

"With a BRCA mutation your risk of developing cancer over a lifetime is right around 87%, such was cited in Ms. Jolie's article, and your risk of ovarian cancer is about 40%. Now in your average population your risk of breast cancer is about 12% and your risk of ovarian cancer is about 1%," Dr. Brehm said.

Those getting the genetic testing meet certain criteria -- including having a family member who had breast cancer, especially if that family member is male and under 50. A cancer-free woman, determined to be at a high risk for cancer, must decide whether she wants to know whether she has the mutated gene.

Then, she must decide what to do about it. Experts say those with the gene have a greater risk of passing it on to future generations.

"In women who undergo prophylactic mastectomy, they take their risk from about 87% down to anywhere from about 5% to 8% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer," Dr. Brehm said.

Dr. Brehm also says women should know that in the last 10 years, breast cancer reconstruction has improved tremendously and provides many options.

Dr. Brehm says starting in June, patients at Wheaton Franciscan Hospital and St. Francis Hospital will be given a cancer risk assessment to help determine whether they should get a genetic test.

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