Health & Fitness

Latinas need to learn from Angelina Jolie Pitt and get tested for breast and ovarian cancers

Angelina Jolie Pitt, in this 2014 photo, wrote a piece last Tuesday in the New York Times, explaining why she had preventive surgery to remove her ovaries and Fallopian tubes.
Angelina Jolie Pitt, in this 2014 photo, wrote a piece last Tuesday in the New York Times, explaining why she had preventive surgery to remove her ovaries and Fallopian tubes. AP

Angelina Jolie Pitt, 39, and Kelly Osbourne, 30, may be helping Latinas more than they know.

Jolie Pitt, writing in last Tuesday’s New York Times, discussed her recent surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes as a preventive measure against developing ovarian cancer. Jolie Pitt, who carries the BRCA1 gene mutation that increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, has lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer.

Meanwhile, Osbourne last week told viewers of The Talk, that she, too, has the BRCA1 gene mutation, just like her cancer-survivor mother, Sharon Osbourne, a co-host of the CBS show. She supports Jolie Pitt’s preventive surgery, which included undergoing a double mastectomy two years ago.

By discussing their conditions, the two have blown open the door that at times Latinas and Caribbean women have kept shuttered, choosing to ignore or underestimate their hereditary cancer risk and miss out on life-saving preventive measures.

Consider the statistics: About 12 percent of U.S. women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. By contrast, 55 to 65 percent of women who inherited the BRCA1 mutation and 45 percent of women who inherited the BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer by age 70.

The statistics are similar for ovarian cancer: About 1.4 percent of U.S. women will develop ovarian cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. By contrast, 39 percent of women who inherit the BRCA1 mutation and 11 to 17 percent of women with the BRCA2 mutation will develop ovarian cancer by age 70.

Latinas face many obstacles when it comes to reaching the awareness that Osbourne and Jolie Pitt have demonstrated. In part, a cultural history of fear of indiscretion can get in the way. Additionally, some doctors believe there is insufficient customized testing for genetic mutations that signal a risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The science designed to trace inherited risks is young. The University of California at Berkeley identified the BRCA1 and BRCA2 human genes in 1990. Five years later, U.S. National Institutes of Health scientists discovered that an alteration in this gene affected 1 percent of the Jewish population.

In 2012, a study revealed there is a “high prevalence” of the genetic mutation increasing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer among Latinas.

Dr. Jeffrey Weitzel, chief of the clinical cancer genetics division at City of Hope in Los Angeles, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, runs the clinical cancer genetics community research network, which runs throughout the Western Hemisphere. He has said several studies have “established unequivocally” that Latinas should undergo a more comprehensive genetic test that screens for “large rearrangement” mutations.

In the case of this breast cancer survivor born in Colombia, by the time I had the knowledge that I was a BRCA mutation carrier, I was a 33-year-old cancer patient. Each year about 230,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 40,000 die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. Despite this knowledge, I didn’t cry when I was diagnosed with cancer. I cried in the arms of a doctor after I learned that I had tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation.

As far as my mom and I knew, I didn't have that history. I would never be pregnant and breast feed a baby. I had a bilateral mastectomy in 2011 and a hysterectomy in 2013. I still fear the hormones that are meant to protect me from cardiovascular disease, bone loss and cognitive changes could fuel a cancerous tumor, so I'm not getting the hormone therapy Jolie Pitt referred to. (After her surgery, Jolie Pitt wrote that she had a patch containing bio-identical estrogen and a progesterone IUD inserted into her uterus to help prevent uterine cancer.)

Jolie Pitt was modest in her Tuesday op-ed piece. What is most amazing about her is that many women — who like me faced a life-saving surgery — had already looked up to her family as an example of how wonderful adoption can be. Losing fertility can be devastating.

Latinas are not alone when it comes to placing value on fertility. Other cultures, too, fuel deadly ignorance.

Osbourne agrees with Jolie Pitt that “knowledge is power.” She said she, too, tested positive for the genetic mutation and plans to take action surgically, after she has children.

“I know that one day I will eventually have to do it, too,” Osbourne said on The Talk last Tuesday. “Because if I have children, I want to be there to bring them up. I want to be there to support them in every way I can.”

Andrea Torres is a reporter for Local10.com

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