University of Pennsylvania Health System

Focus on Cancer

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How the Basser Research Center for BRCA at Penn is Helping People with BRCA like Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie announced in a New York Times op-ed piece titled “My Medical Choice” she had a preventative (prophylactic) double mastectomy earlier this year.

A mastectomy is a procedure that removes part, or all of the breast.

Jolie, 37, announced she had the procedure after learning she carries a mutation of the BRCA1 gene, which sharply increases her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

From her op-ed piece in the New York Times, Jolie says:

“We often speak of ‘Mommy’s mommy,” and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy."

How the Basser Research Center for BRCA at Penn is Helping Women with BRCA like Angelina Jolie


The Basser Research Center for BRCA at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center was created to lead the revolution in defeating BRCA-related cancers. Through visionary philanthropy by Mindy and Jon Gray, the Basser Center was created as the first comprehensive center of its kind, featuring a remarkable breadth and depth of talent and resources as well as pioneering research that cannot be found anywhere else in the nation.

Increasingly, women at high risk for breast cancer are choosing prophylactic mastectomy to greatly reduce their chance of getting breast cancer.

“Prophylactic mastectomy reduces breast cancer risk by at least 90 percent,” says Rebecca Mueller, MS, CGC, certified genetic counselor and outreach coordinator at the Basser Research Center for BRCA.

Mueller explains, “Prophylactic mastectomy reduces breast cancer risk by about 90 percent. Whether someone elects prophylactic mastectomy involves a lot of factors. The breast cancer risk profiles for BRCA1 and BRCA2 are slightly different, so the counseling is very individualized. At the end of the day, women’s personal experiences with breast cancer may inform their choices. Women who have lost loved ones to breast cancer are more likely to get prophylactic mastectomies. Women from families full of breast cancer survivors may make other choices.”

Indeed, while prophylactic mastectomy stories often make the front page, at least as many women at increased risk for breast cancer choose other methods of managing their risk like enhanced breast cancer screening or risk-reducing medications. Jessica Long, CGC, a genetic counselor at Penn’s Basser Research Center for BRCA explains that “this is generally a very personal decision for each woman, even within the same family.”

Cancer Genetic Counseling at Penn

Cancer genetic counseling is an extremely important step in defining one’s cancer risk and considering interventions to address it. Genetic counseling with genetic counselors can help people who are concerned about their family history of cancer by:

  1. Determining if genetic testing is appropriate for a family
  2. Interpreting genetic test results, since mutations in different cancer genes confer different risks
  3. Estimating cancer risks based on family history if no gene mutations can be identified
If a gene mutation is identified in a family, then family members can undergo genetic testing for that mutation to learn if they have inherited the increased cancer risk or not. For example, a mother or father with a BRCA1 mutation has a 50 percent chance of passing it on to each child. Despite the family history, individuals who do not inherit the mutation are typically at average risk for cancer.

Genetic counselors can also provide information on cancer risk by decade of life, information that can help women decide not just if but when to consider prophylactic surgery or other measures to manage cancer risk.

Penn’s Mariann and Robert MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center provides consultation with certified genetic counselors and medical oncologists.

Learn more about BRCA and hereditary cancer risk at Penn


Help Penn Discover New Ways to Help Women and Men with BRCA1 and BRCA2

The Basser Research Center for BRCA is dedicated to the improvement in basic understanding, clinical care, and development of new therapies targeting BRCA1/2 related cancers. Join the revolution and speed the pace of discovery, helping more women like Angelina Jolie empower themselves with knowledge about their risk for cancer by making a gift today.






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