Angelina Jolie Gives Platform To The High Cost Of Breast Cancer Detection And Treatment

May 15, 2013  |  

Angelina Jolie is a siren, a vixen. Exotic and curvy by Hollywood standards, she made a name for herself slinking across red carpets and film sets as the walking embodiment of sex. She’s the dark-haired beauty who stole the sexiest man in America from America’s blond sweetheart.

She’s the stuff of Hollywood legend. Making her announcement that she recently underwent a preventive double mastectomy all the more jarring.

In a New York Times op-ed, Jolie describes her decision-making and treatment process following the discovery that she carried a “faulty” gene, BRCA1. The presence of which sharply increases her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer (her mother passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 56 after battling the disease for a decade).

“On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman,” she writes. “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in now way diminishes my femininity.”

Jolie didn’t have to go public. Not even a whisper of her condition had leaked to the press. She could have had reconstructive surgery, walked the red carpet and rolled her eyes as blogs wondered if she had a boob job. Instead she used her personal struggle and celebrity to give a platform to a serious issue.

This approach falls in line with the humanitarian Jolie has become. An evolution that began when she started working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after being exposed to humanitarian crises while filming the Lara Croft franchise.

“She’s the biggest name of all, and I think given her prominence and her visibility not only as a famous person but also a beautiful actress, it’s going to carry a lot of weight for women,” said Barron H. Lerner, a medical historian and the author of “The Breast Cancer Wars” told the New York Times.

The cost of testing for mutations of BRCA genes comes in at more than $3,000. Why the high price tag? The biotech company that discovered the gene filed a patent for it in 1995, giving them a monopoly on products that can test for mutations. The Supreme Court is still deciding whether a corporation can file a patent based on a gene invented by Mother Nature and present in every single cell in every single person on earth.

Jolie’s situation is seen as special and high-risk by the medical community. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are estimated to cause only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers and 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers among white women in the United States. But statistics for other racial and ethnic groups are not available. Odd, given that African-American women are more likely to die of breast cancer than their White counterparts.

Studies show that few Black women younger than 50, a population disproportionately afflicted with and dying from early-onset breast cancer, undergo genetic testing. Only one third of Black women aged 50 or younger who met national guidelines for genetic testing for breast cancer had been referred for such testing.

Moreover, the high cost of healthcare in this country — and the fact that many still lack coverage — make it cost-prohibitive for many to take basic tests, like a mammogram, let alone receive treatment.

Family history and financial status are thought to influence their treatment choices. “Through our study, we determined that 34 participants met national guidelines for BRCA testing,” study co-author Tuya Pal, M.D. said. “But only 13 reported that their health care providers referred them for genetic counseling and/or testing.”

Now that Jolie has the world talking, maybe the issues surrounding breast and ovarian cancer will get more attention.

C. Cleveland covers professional development topics and entrepreneurial rebels who blaze their own career paths. She explores these stories and more on The Red Read, Twitter (@CleveOutLoud) and Facebook (/MyReadIsRed).

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