Angelina Jolie: NYC women praise her for shining light on cancer risks
New York cancer survivors are praising Angelina Jolie for telling the world that she had a mastectomy to avoid getting breast cancer, while other women are giving new thought to their risks and family history.
"She took the power away from cancer," said Jamie Pleva-Nickerson, 33, a brokerage service manager in Manhattan who lives in Somers, N.Y.
Pleva-Nickerson discovered she had the BRCA gene, which increases the risk of breast cancer, and was undergoing pre-surgical tests for her own prophylactic mastectomy four years ago when doctors discovered she already had breast cancer. Three months after Pleva-Nickerson had her own surgery and was in the midst of 18 rounds of chemotherapy, her sister died of breast cancer.
"A lot of people don't know about that gene: I didn't know about it," said Betty Cadena, 55, a paralegal from South Ozone Park.
Similarly, Karen Swaby, 30, a cosmetologist from Richmond Hill, said she intended to talk to her OB-GYN "about my own risk factors: I never heard of these genes!" she said.
Jolie, 37, watched her mother die from ovarian cancer at age 56 in 2007. Genetic testing revealed that Jolie carried the BRCA1 gene, which typically puts a woman at up to an 85% lifetime risk of contracting breast cancer and a 40-50% risk of ovarian cancer.
In her New York Times essay on Tuesday, Jolie described a surgical odyssey that began in February and resulted in a double mastectomy and elaborate breast reconstruction.
The sophistication of modern breast reconstruction is a major factor driving the trend of prophylactic mastectomies for women who discover they have a BRCA gene, said Dr. Rache Simmons, breast surgery chief at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Jolie, Simmons said, "is the typical patient who chooses to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy: She's in her late 30s or early 40s, she has young children, and she saw a relative or several relatives go through breast cancer and die."
Jolie proves that "just because you have the gene doesn't mean you will get breast cancer," just as not having the gene is no guarantee you won't, said Jenna Glazer, development director for The Young Survival Coalition. "People need to understand their own individual risk and this will prompt them to talk to their doctor so they can make well-informed decisions," said Glazer. Glazer, 41, had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction beginning in 2004, but does not carry the BRCA gene. Jolie's revelation will console young women with cancer struggling with body image issues, said Glazer. "She's such a beautiful woman, so incredibly sexy, and goes public with this while working in an industry that is so focused on looks? I give her a lot of credit," said Glazer.
Jolie's declaration "really helps other women struggling with the decision and makes it a little less scary," added Pleva-Nickerson.
Brad Pitt, Jolie's fiance, dubbed his lover's choice "heroic."
Pleva-Nickerson, who began dating the man who is now her husband during her chemotherapy treatments, said the couple set a good example. A mastectomy, she said, "doesn't change a woman's beauty, or how sexual she is. I was so nervous, and afraid of what I would look like, what man would find me attractive. My husband tells me, 'Are you crazy? You're gorgeous!' "