Angelina Jolie’s Breasts

Okay, I totally wrote that title just for the search engine traffic. Well, not really – Angelina wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about having a preventative double mastectomy.  Her mother passed away at the age of 56 from breast cancer; Ms. Jolie carries a mutated gene that gives her approximately an 87% chance of getting the disease.  She opted to have both breasts removed and reconstructive surgery.  (Please read the details of her surgery and her reconstruction; it’s fascinating.)

Breast cancer screening has gotten significantly better in the past decade.  Sometime around 2007, breast MRIs were introduced to the general public.  The test enables a radiologist to find cancer in the very earliest of stages, when it can be removed before it mutates.  The other advantage to the technology is that it works quite well even with dense breast tissue: young women have denser tissue that does not show abnormalities well on a mammogram, and renders mammograms less than useful for many women. As one physician said, in reference to getting annual MRIs, “No one needs to get cancer [with this technology]”.

That said, genetic breast cancer is particularly vicious: it strikes at a younger age (about 30% of women who get breast cancer before the age of 50 have a mutation in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, compared to 15% of women who get breast cancer at all ages), is more aggressive, is more deadly, and is more likely to recur.  When faced with an 87% chance of that very grim future, it’s understandable that any woman would want a preventative double mastectomy , although the procedure might be extreme for a woman with no risk factors for the disease.


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Filed under Bioethics

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