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Angelina Jolie and Other Celebs Focus Attention on BRCA Test

When you first hear it, you cringe: beautiful, young women choosing to have both of their breasts removed and sometimes also choosing to have both of their ovaries removed. But then when you understand why they make such a difficult decision, it makes a lot of sense.

These women took a genetic test and found out that they have a mutation of the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene. These genes, when normal, suppress tumors in the breasts and ovaries. But if they are mutated, the tumors tend to grow, and the woman's chance of dying of cancer skyrockets.

Fortunately, less than one percent of women have mutated BRCA genes. But unfortunately, those who do face an ominous future. Many feel as if they've been given a sentence of early death, and are just waiting for that lump to appear one of these days.

What does a woman do when she receives the news she's tested positive for a BRCA mutation? Take control of it, like Angelia Jolie and many others like her who've had both breasts removed prophylactically. That is, they've had their breasts removed before the cancer had the chance to attack them.

Jolie said the surgery dropped her chance of getting cancer from 87 percent way down to under 5 percent. Actress Christiana Applegate also had a double mastectomy after testing positive for a BRCA mutation.

BRCA mutations are inherited. Jolie's mother died of ovarian cancer at age 56. Applegate's mother died also died at a relatively young age, but of breast cancer. Usually diagnoses and deaths of breast and/or ovarian cancer are rampant in the family trees of people with the mutated gene.

Therefore, doctors recommend getting tested for the BRCA gene mutation if you have:

  • Two first-degree relatives (mother or sister) diagnosed with breast cancer, with one of them BEFORE AGE 51
  • THREE or more first- or second-degree relative (grandmother or aunt) diagnosed with breast cancer
  • A combination of first- and second-degree relatives diagnosed with breast cancer OR ovarian cancer
  • A first-degree relative diagnosed with cancer in BOTH BREASTS
  • A combination of first- or second-degree relatives diagnosed with OVARIAN CANCER
  • A first- or second-degree relative diagnosed with breast AND ovarian cancer
  • A male relative diagnosed with breast cancer
  • are from Ashkenazi Jewish descent

Jolie is reportedly considering having both of her ovaries removed. That's a bigger deal than having both breasts removed, which is not to minimize the trauma of that procedure. Nevertheless, plastic surgeons can do wonderful things in the wake of double mastectomies.

On the other hand, having both ovaries removed means no more children, at least not ones conceived naturally. Also, the removal of ovaries propels a woman into early menopause, and that's not pleasant.

Despite those drawbacks, however, women with BRCA mutations are going forward with not only having both breasts removed, but also both ovaries. Sandra Cohen made that decision because, although still in her thirties, she had two children and was more concerned with remaining alive to care for them than having more kids.

I can't help but wish Pierce Brosnan's daughter had made the same choice. The 007 actor's daughter died just a couple of weeks ago from ovarian cancer at the age of 41, leaving behind two children. Her mother, Brosnan's first wife, Cassandra Harris, and grandmother both died of ovarian cancer at a young age.

Although it was not made public whether the BRCA mutation ran in their family, it would appear so. Brosnan did say his daughter was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years ago, at age 38.

Genetic tests are not always a good idea, in my opinion, such as the genetic test for Down Syndrome. However, genetic tests can be lifesavers, as in the case of the BRCA test and the test for Sickle Cell Trait. That genetic mutation can cause sudden death when the person over-exerts him or herself physically. This has caused many deaths in college and high school football, as well as in other fields of sports competition and in military training.

Many people with the sickle cell trait do not even know they carry it. If they did know, all they would have to do is pull-back when they find themselves in a strenuous workout, let their heart rate come down a bit, and all would be fine.

With thousands of genetic tests available, consult with your doctor about which ones, if any might be right for you, keeping in mind what you would do if the test came back positive.