Courageous Angelina Jolie

Before the hail of praise on Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie fades following her shocking revelation of a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, it’s important to note a few frank facts.

Gorgeous Angelina, who oozed sensuality in that Oscars high split black velvet dress, learnt that she had the “faulty’’ BRCA1 gene at age 37. The news presented Angelina with horrid odds: that she faced an 87 per cent likelihood of developing the same disease as her mother,  Marcheline Bertrand, who died of ovarian cancer at age 56.   The sexy star, so blessed with her perfect partner, Brad Pitt and fist-full of lovely children, was living in the shadow of a looming death sentence. And she was brave to analyse her dim prospects and take steps to radically reduce her risk of contracting the disease.   Most women, presented with this serious scenario do nothing.

However, before thousands of women rush off to genetists,  Cancer Council medical spokesman,  Dr. Graeme Suthers,  says less  than 10 per cent of women’s reproductive cancers are linked to “familial factors’’ and under  5 per cent of these are linked to the rare BRCA1 and 2 mutant genes.   A genetist, Dr Suthers, who heads the familial cancer programs, says the truth is more than 90 per cent of reproductive cancers have nothing to do with genes or familial factors. For the vast majority of cases, there is much we can do in preventative measures to keep ourselves safe.

The first, vital thing a woman can do to allay her fear is to be aware of risks. Then  prepare a family history – a list of who has died or suffered from which cancer and take it to your GP asking “is there any reason for concern?’’.

We need to be diligent through “surveillance’’ of symptoms, through self-examination,  regular mammograms through Breastscreen SA’s free screening programs and to accept the link between lifestyle excesses and developing cancer.

Yet only 57 per cent of women in the target group of 50-69 have regular mammograms to detect any tell-tale signs of cancerous tissue.  Mammograms have discovered countless lumps, most of which are treated with lumpectomies. Screening has radically reduced the numbers of women dying from breast cancer.  And the outcomes continue to improve.  The five-year breast cancer survival rates now stands at 77 per cent. Ignorance or avoidance of the BC issue is no saviour when statistics show  a high 1/12 chance of developing breast cancer in our lifetime.   It is a disease of the good, long life, we boomers have enjoyed.

The harsh fact is that cancer is NOT something that comes out of the blue, that we are awfully unlucky to be inflicted with in such a cruel way.

“That is the wrong perspective,’’  says Dr Suthers . “The right perspective is to see that there is an inevitability about this disease.

“We all have a fuse, a patterning or a “rusting’’of the genetic codes and while we might vary (in the onset of the disease) cancer is there for all of us if we live long enough.’’

“I do want to normalise it for people to understand cancer is one of the consequences of the degradation of the genetic code which is in every cell of our bodies; it is something that is part of our peaceful, developed world.’’

Therefore cancer becomes a significant part of our lives as is happening now for ageing boomers in their 60s.

Therefore, Angelina has done us all a great service with her  first-person article “My Medical Choice’’ published in the New York Times.  It surely flushed Australian women out of their complacency. Cancer clinics across Australia have taken a flurry of calls since.

“Yes, we have had more enquiries and we are saying if women are concerned don’t shy away from it, but see your GP,’’ says Dr Suthers. “Running away from it and not addressing it won’t make it go away.”

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