This week marks the one-year anniversary since Angelina Jolie penned her op-ed article in the New York Times sharing her extensive family history of breast and ovarian cancer while also detailing her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. In the year since the article ran, her choices – both her medical decision and the decision to share her story – have had a significant impact on raising awareness about all types of early cancer detection and screening.
Since Jolie’s article ran, the genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2 have become virtual buzz words. Even though these genes were discovered in the mid-1990s, genetic testing for the genes is now increasingly available. Jolie's case has highlighted the importance of knowing one's family history and learning one's cancer risks in order to address them proactively. However, along with the positive outcomes of her article, came unintended misunderstandings.
According to Joy Larson Haidle, genetic counselor at North Memorial’s Hubert Humphrey Cancer Center and president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, “Members of the public mistakenly thought that the genetic tests for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes would tell them their precise risk of developing breast cancer over a lifetime. IF the gene was present, there is data to help tailor the chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer. However, unless there is a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, there is a known mutation in the family, or a person is of a certain population where changes in the gene are more common (Ashkenazi Jewish population for example), the odds that the genetic test would provide useful information would actually be quite low.”
Jolie started the dialogue and is to be commended for her bravery – and now we encourage our patients to continue the conversation with their doctor. A genetic counselor is a valuable resource for explaining complicated information, cancer risks, and ensuring the appropriate genetic test is performed.
To set up an appointment for genetic counseling, contact the care team at the Humphrey Cancer Center at 763-581-2800.
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