BOSTON (CBS) – A difficult and courageous decision from Angelina Jolie. The actress just announced she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in an effort to decrease her chance of developing the disease that killed her mother.
Two years ago, the Oscar winner underwent a double mastectomy to avoid breast cancer. Jolie carries a gene mutation making her more likely to get both breast and ovarian cancer. Since her first announcement the rates of genetic testing have increased around the world and that means more women are facing these difficult choices.
The mutation that Jolie and many others carry is the BRCA1 gene, and it means a dramatically higher than normal chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. With the removal of her healthy breasts two years ago her risk of that cancer decreased by more than 90%. Her recent surgery should lower her chance of ovarian cancer by the same amount.
“It’s very difficult to detect ovarian cancer early, and she didn’t want to wait,” says Dr. Judy Garber, the head of the Center for Cancer Genetics and Prevention at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She says for women with the gene and a family history like Jolie, surgery can be the right decision. “You leave behind a very tiny risk, and we tell women they have to be comfortable that this is the most they can do,” says Dr. Garber.
Jolie made her announcement Tuesday in a column in the New York Times writing, “It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue.”
“Knowledge is power,” Dr. Garber says. “Those will not be the choices everyone makes, but to know that you can be empowered by this information rather than be overwhelmed by it should be a good thing.”
Of course the ovarian surgery means Jolie can not have more children, so that has to enter into the decision making, and it also means immediate menopause. “It’s really important that women have thought about that before surgery, and work with their doctors to have a plan for managing their menopause symptoms,” says Dr. Garber.
Jolie lost her Grandmother, mother and aunt to cancer. Deciding to have genetic testing can be a difficult decision, but it starts with a conversation with your doctor.