The Deadly Breast Cancer Gene
LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — “It greatly reduces my risk… I never wanted to look back in life and say, you know, ‘Why didn’t I?’”
That’s how Lorna Dressendorfer, a nurse at D.C.’s Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center, views her decision to undergo a double mastectomy after finding out in 2003 that she carries a mutated gene that greatly increases her risk of breast cancer.
In a Tuesday op-ed she authored for The New York Times, Oscar winner Angelina Jolie made the announcement that she, too, had a preventive double mastectomy after learning she carried a mutated BRCA1 gene.
According to the National Cancer Institute, BRCA1 and BRCA2 stand for breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and breast cancer susceptibility gene 2, respectively. In normal cells, the genes help ensure the stability of the cell’s DNA and help prevent uncontrolled cell growth.
A woman’s risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits a mutation of BRCA1 or BRCA2. Jolie wrote that her doctors estimated she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
She also wrote that she hopes other women can benefit from reading about her experience.
Dressendorfer shares Jolie’s hope, and thinks the A-list actress’s announcement could help erase the stigma attached to a procedure some might view as drastic.
“It becomes more socially acceptable, and so people are going to start talking about it,” she said.
However, she says the option of a preventative mastectomy is not unheard of. As part of her job, Dressendorfer helps women who are considering getting tested to see if they carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutated gene, or those who are considering their options after finding out they have it.
The first step in the process, though, is to see a genetic counselor. They can assess your risk of having the mutated gene even before the sometimes expensive testing phase, which involves the collection of a blood sample.
Beth Peshkin, the senior genetic counselor at the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center, says only certain people are candidates for the testing and Jolie was a prime candidate because her mother was diagnosed with cancer at a younger age.
Peshkin says what makes Jolie’s story so powerful is not the decision she made, but that she and her medical team took the proactive step to get the testing in the first place.
To learn more about Jolie’s experience, read her New York Times piece.