by Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund
When I read about Angelina Jolie’s announcement this week, I cringed.
I have greatly admired her willingness to speak out on important issues over the years. Her public announcement about her mastectomies will certainly reassure some women that losing a breast to breast cancer isn’t quite as frightening as it had once seemed. But Ms. Jolie is a powerful role model to millions of women. What are the unintended consequences of the role she is modeling regarding breast cancer?
Is breast cancer so frightening that it is better for a woman to remove her breasts before she is even diagnosed? Obviously, that isn’t what Ms. Jolie is saying. She has one of the breast cancer genes (BRCA1), and that greatly increases her chances of getting breast cancer.
However, the extremely high risk that she quoted from her doctor (87 percent chance of getting breast cancer) was based on old, small studies. Newer studies have found that the risk of getting breast cancer for an average woman with BRCA1 is 65 percent. Since being overweight and smoking increase the risk and exercising and breastfeeding lower the risk, Ms. Jolie’s risk of breast cancer, even with the BRCA1 gene, could be considerably lower.
Of course, the lifetime risk of breast cancer would still be high, but it wouldn’t be nearly as high a risk during the next 10 years or even 20 years. According to experts, a 40-year-old woman with the BRCA1 gene has a 16 percent chance of getting breast cancer before she turns 50. That’s not nearly as frightening, and with regular screening and all the progress in breast cancer treatments, the survival rate from breast cancer is higher than ever. Many breast cancer patients live long and healthy lives. And, it is possible that by the time Ms. Jolie (or any other woman with BRCA1) got breast cancer in the future—if she ever did—the treatments available would be even more effective than they are today.
Thanks to mammograms, women are getting diagnosed with breast cancer at much earlier stages, making it safe to undergo a lumpectomy (which removes just the cancer) rather than a mastectomy (which removes the entire breast). And yet, American women are undergoing mastectomies at a higher rate than women in other countries—many of them medically unnecessary. Breast cancer experts believe that many women undergoing mastectomies don’t need them and are getting them out of fear, not because of the real risks.
As an actress whose appeal has focused on her beauty, surgically removing both her breasts when she didn’t have cancer was a very gutsy thing to do. But if we care about women’s health, we need to stop thinking of mastectomy as the “brave” choice and understand that the risks and benefits of mastectomy are different for every woman with cancer or the risk of cancer. In breast cancer, any reasonable treatment choice is the brave choice.
Nobody can second-guess Angelina Jolie’s choice—it’s hers alone to make. Fortunately for her, she has access to the best reconstructive surgeons in the country, and they will keep her breasts looking as natural and beautiful as possible, an advantage that most implant patients don’t have. If she has any of the common problems with her breast implants, she can afford to get those problems surgically fixed whenever she wants to. She can also afford breast MRIs every other year ($2,000 each), which the Food and Drug Administration recommends as a way to make sure that the silicone from the implants is not leaking into the lymph nodes.
Angelina Jolie is not in any way an average woman, and what felt right for Angelina Jolie might not be right for most women who are afraid of getting breast cancer, and not even for most women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
I thank Ms. Jolie for speaking up about her decision, and I thank the many cancer experts who are doing their best this week to explain why double mastectomies are not the best choice for most women. Let’s use this teachable moment to have a frank discussion of the treatment choices for breast cancer and to encourage women to make decisions based on their own situations, not on the choice of a celebrity, however admirable she is. For each woman, it’s important to weigh her own risk of cancer—in the next few years, and not just over her lifetime—and the risks of various treatments, and to make the decision that is best for her.
Diana Zuckerman is the president of the National Research Center for Women & Families and the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund. She received her PhD in psychology from Ohio State University and was a post-doctoral fellow in epidemiology and public health at Yale Medical School. After serving on the faculty of Vassar and Yale and as a researcher at Harvard, Dr. Zuckerman spent a dozen years as a health policy expert in the U.S. Congress and a senior policy adviser in the Clinton White House. She is the author of five books, several book chapters, and dozens of articles in medical and academic journals, and in newspapers across the country