Breast Cancer Testing Is Right for Angelina Jolie But What About Average Moms?

Angelina JolieIt's been a big week for something near and dear to moms' hearts. Literally. Actress Angelina Jolie set off a firestorm of debate this week over testing for the BRCA gene, aka the "breast cancer gene," when she announced she'd not only been tested, but she'd undergone a double mastectomy too.

It's a move some are calling brave, others stupid, while still others have been empowered by the celebrity mom's announcement to come out and talk about their feelings about whether or not women really need to know what could happen to their bodies decades into the future.

So should moms be rushing to their doctors, begging to be tested so they know if they need to prepare their kids for the worst?


Maybe. That's exactly why Jolie faced the scary test. The actress and mother of six explained in The New York Times this week:

I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.

There's no question moms want to do what's best for their kids. But is gene testing always a guarantee of that?

S.E. Smith got the test. She has the gene. But as she explained on X.O. Jane, she's not as lucky as Angelina ... she can't afford the double mastectomy:

When you’re uninsured, which I am, a preventative double mastectomy is often out of reach, assuming you could afford the genetic testing to tell you one might be a good idea in the first place. This isn’t like choosing between a trip to Hawaii and a new computer ... 

For now, all I can do is hang my hopes on the slim percentage that I won’t get breast cancer, knowing that if a tumor develops, it’s not like I can afford to treat that either.

Smith isn't the only one who's been tested and found that the answers aren't as simple as Jolie's "cut them off" approach.

For The Stir's Sasha Brown-Worsham, the genetic test was a burden off her shoulders, but a negative result doesn't mean the daughter who lost her mother to breast cancer as a teenager is "safe":

I don't know my destiny. I'm still high risk and I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. But I do know that the gene mutation I believed I had for so many years is not in my body. So I'm grateful. Grateful for my health right now and grateful for the hope this little test has given me.

Brown-Worsham still comes down on the side of the test. But not everyone does.

Writer Florence Williams -- who has two grandmothers and a great-grandmother who died of breast cancer or ovarian cancer and is therefore considered a higher risk for breast cancer -- didn't get tested ... because it just wasn't in the cards. As she explained on this week:

Using the models, tests and screens made me feel like I was doing something, but ultimately, they’re not terribly meaningful. It’s not even very helpful to know your magic risk number for breast cancer. Most women with lots of risk factors will never get breast cancer, and many without the big risk factors will get it nonetheless. In other words, many of the standard risk factors (early puberty, late menopause, obesity, older maternal age, obesity, smoking) are fairly useless. The reason is that we still don’t know really know what causes breast cancer.

It seems there is no easy answer. Technology has brought us to a new point in history, but it still comes down to personal choice.

What would you do? Would you get the BRCA test done?


Image via Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr

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