A Lesson In Breasts, Starring Angelina Jolie

Sometimes, public interest in the lives of celebrities helps us in medicine. For years, I have wished that a celebrity would champion the importance of contraception, planned pregnancies, and reproductive choices. Someone to share that planning for a pregnancy, optimizing health, taking preconception folic acid, and making healthy choices was fashionable. Alas, I’m still waiting for this to happen.

But this week, Angelina Jolie did a great service by bringing attention to the very difficult choices women face in the complex world of breast cancer, screening, prevention, and genetics. It was almost 40 years ago when First Lady Betty Ford openly discussed her breast cancer, mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast), and the importance of a screening mammogram. There was a surge in screening mammography after her revelations, and she personally helped Nancy Brinker get the Susan G. Komen Foundation started. It’s a great example of a well-known individual making a big impact on women’s health.

Hopefully, Ms. Jolie’s announcement will have a similar effect. She has taken the key message of preventive health, and used a very important term, “empowerment.” Clearly, her decision to have a double mastectomy in order to lower her cancer risk was not made lightly—it was made with a collaborative team that factored in her family history, risk factors, and the individual options available to her. In describing her experience, Ms. Jolie addressed the concerns many women have about their family support, family impact, and perception of self. She discussed how rare BRCA gene mutations increase a woman’s risk of developing cancer and the health disparities that stand in the way of more screening and treatment for women with these inherited risk factors. These are the issues our ACOG Fellows face daily—determining which patients need a comprehensive screening approach, providing the appropriate care, and having a team well-versed in genetics and risks to tailor the care to the individual.

Quite frankly, we as ob-gyns can’t know it all, but we sure can get a team that collectively does! We need to be knowledgeable in the appropriate screening protocol (ACOG recommends routine screening for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer). We also need to be prepared to counsel patients with elevated risk, and to call on the expertise of geneticists, surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists to collaboratively manage a patient’s care. It is up to us to be aware of risks for our patients and develop the best available system to help them make personal decisions.

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