Angelina Jolie has announced that she has recently completed a series of surgical procedures to have her breasts removed. The procedure, called a double mastectomy (a single mastectomy being the removal of one breast), is usually only carried when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer.
Angelina is only 37 years old, however, she has a family history of breast cancer and carries to BRCA1 gene which greatly increases a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer.
Angelina explained in an article published on the New York Times that her mother suffered with cancer for a decade before dying at the age of 56 years. Angelina simply wanted to be sure that she would not suffer in the same way and to put her children’s worries at bay.
She had often talked to her own children about what happened to “mommy’s mommy” and having to explain to them why her own mum died. They would often ask if the same could happen to her, and while Angelina told her children that the same thing would not happen, she knew that she was carrying the BRCA1 gene which is a known risk factor of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
87% Risk of Developing Breast Cancer
Her doctors informed her that carrying the BRCA1 gene meant that she had a 87% chance of getting breast cancer.
Breast cancer can be detected and treated, but treatment is not always successful.
While the cancerous cells are in the breast tissue there is no immediate risk to health. However, when the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes it can then spread around the body and cause secondary breast cancer, which is when cancer develops in other organs.
So Angelina decided to have a preventive double mastectomy (also called prophylactic or risk-reducing mastectomy), and is likely, based on her article in the Times, to follow this up with a with a hysterectomy (removal of her cervix).
According to Cancer.gov a double mastectomy reduces the risk of breast cancer by around 90%.
What Are The Other Options?
A double mastectomy is not the only option. Removal of just the lymph nodes is also possible. There are also drug treatments to reduce the risk of developing cancer.
Drugs which reduce breast cancer risk are called chemoprevention drugs. The two drugs currently used are tamoxifen (anti-oestrogen drug) and raloxifene. Researchers are also investigating a newer group of drugs, aromatase inhibitors, to test how effective they may be.
However, many drugs do have side effects, and some of these are serious. For example, raloxifene can cause blood clots to form in the lungs and legs, which can cause stroke, heart attack and cause sudden death.
Another option for those at greater risk is to have regular screening. However, this leads to an increased exposure to X-rays, which can cause an increase in cancer risk.
It is a hard decision for a woman to make, however, Angelina has hopefully guaranteed her long term health by eliminating the main risk factors for breast cancer and as a result will be around to raise her many children and grand-children to come.
My Medical Choice by ANGELINA JOLIE. Published: May 14, 2013
Preventive Mastectomy, National Cancer Institute – Cancer.gov (accessed 14 May 2013)
Medicines to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk – Cancer.org (accessed 14 May 2013)
Tamoxifen – Macmillan Cancer Support.
Raloxifene – MedlinePlus