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Taking The Decision To Get The Cancer Load Off Your Chest

posted on 6/16/2016 Facebook Facebook

Believe it or not, our lives are so profoundly influenced by celebrity trends. Be it a specific beauty product that our favorite star uses, an exercise routine they swear by or a simple tweet about drinking a cocktail of some fruits and veggies to burn off those pounds. Such trends are popular for going viral in no time, simply because we are all heralded by the idea that what works for them will work for me too. While these trends are good on motivation they might be not be so good on effective results.

Likewise, another area where celebrities wield elaborate power is the realm of public health. Past speaks for itself--celebrity disclosures of personal medical battles have paved the path to raise awareness as well as millions of dollars in research for lesser known but crippling diseases. Examples include Michael J. Fox and his Parkinson’s disclosure or the very recent revelation of Angelina Jolie’s pre-emptive double mastectomy to cut down her risk for breast cancer.

Jolie’s announcement which came about three years back created a wide spread cultural, medical, and media earthquake. The news was so arresting that it gave Miss Jolie a cover story on TIME’s magazine nicknaming the stir as “The Jolie Effect”. And while the whole world lauded her brave decision for going public about her surgery (without giving a second thought about her career), we would like to focus on this aspect from a completely clinical perspective.

Breast Cancer, Genes & Genetic Testing
According to the American Cancer Society, five to ten percent of all cancers have familial or genetic risk. Mutations in two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2 are known to increase the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer in women, and has been identified to run in families. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in urban Indian women. Around one in 500 women who suffer from breast cancer are believed to have a mutation in either BRCA1 or BRCA2. If one knows about the mutation beforehand then appropriate steps can be taken to eliminate the risk of developing breast cancer as also to guide treatment after diagnosis.

In Jolie’s case, she was able to find out about her risk for breast cancer through genetic testing. The screening is mostly done through a simple blood or saliva sample and tests for mutations in genes which are linked to the development of diseases. The American actress was found to carry a mutation in BRCA1 gene like her mother (who died of ovarian cancer), and which eventually fueled her decision to go for double mastectomy (surgical removal of breasts) and then a salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries).

Surgery Or No Surgery?
Jolie’s proactive decision to undergo the surgery has helped raise awareness about the importance of a preventative health care model focused on using advanced technology like genetic testing. However, it’s important for women to understand that, Jolie’s decision was on the extreme end of the scale and it was a decision personal to her.

Doctors themselves agree that going for double mastectomy is advisable if you have a faulty gene and a family history of cancer, since this will cut down the cancer risk by about 80%. However the risk is not completely eliminated. The real take away message here is that you can determine your risk of diseases early and the appropriate steps to eliminate this risk. Genetic testing—the new age preventative health checkup gives every individual the opportunity to make this choice and be informed about their health.

In this age of personalized medicine, screening for diseases is now a means of empowerment to the patients—a tool for making more informed decisions. Jolie got it right when she said that knowledge is power and living in fear is no way to live. However, the most power comes from understanding your specific, personal risks and this can play a huge role in mitigating the risk. Understand your family history and own up to it, especially when it comes to your health. Remember,  an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


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