Cancer expert warns against 'Jolie reaction'

03:07, May 15 2013
Angelina Jolie
PRO-ACTIVE: Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie has had a preventive double mastectomy as she carries the 'faulty' gene that increases her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

A breast cancer expert is warning women against knee-jerk reactions to test for a certain cancer gene after news actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy.

Jolie revealed this week that she underwent a double mastectomy earlier this year to lessen her chances of getting breast cancer.

She made the decision after genetic tests revealed she had a rare mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which left her with an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent chance of ovarian cancer. Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand died, aged 56, in 2007 after battling ovarian cancer.

And while she is being lauded for prompting a discussion on the early detection of breast cancer, doctors have been urging women with a high risk of developing breast cancer not to jump to conclusions.

Stephen Mills, a plastic surgeon and medical committee chair for the Breast Cancer Foundation, said it was an incredibly personal decision and most women received counselling before even getting tested for a BRCA1 mutation.

"What she's [Jolie] done is incredibly brave, and as she says, it was a decision that was right for her. It may apply to other women, but then again it may not."

Any testing for the BRCA1 mutation in New Zealand had to be done in conjunction with Genetic Health Service NZ.

"There are alternatives, which can include increased monitoring and medicines. It's also a big decision for some women to even have the test in the first place."

Mills said there was always increased awareness and more enquiries from the public about testing when a high profile person made an announcement such as Jolie's. But he said there were misconceptions about the BRCA1 gene.

"It's not the gene that's the problem, it's a specific mutation that can occur that is. And although breast cancer is very common, the mutation is only in about five per cent of women."

Nelson woman Katie Sellars said for her the decision to remove her breasts was easy.

And even though she later developed cancer anyway, Sellars said she would do it all over again if she had to.

"I had a young family at the time, and my daughter was four years old, the same age I was when I lost my mother to breast cancer [at age 28] - I never wanted her to have to live with that."

After finding out she was also a risk of developing breast cancer, Sellars underwent a double mastectomy in 1998. It's a decision her daughter may also have to face in the future.

Sellars was told in 2006 she had developed cancer.

"A mastectomy obviously doesn't protect you entirely from breast cancer. I knew that, and it turned out a small amount of breast tissue near my armpit was missed and the cancer grew on that.

"But [the mastectomy] reduced my chances of developing cancer to less than an average woman and when I did develop it, it was caught early and thankfully hadn't spread anywhere."

Sellars has now completed her full treatment, which included chemotherapy and Herceptin.

And while the threat of cancer will never fully go away for her, she said her decision to undergo a double mastectomy was the right one.