James Jopling: In beating breast cancer, knowledge is power

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We’re sorry to hear that Angelina Jolie has the BRCA 1 gene fault. In sharing her story, it is understandable that women will now be asking what this means for them.

First and foremost, it’s important that women do not worry unduly. BRCA gene faults are rare and in most cases are linked to a strong family history of breast cancer, but we would urge anyone who is worried about their risk of breast cancer to talk to their doctor.

For women like Jolie, it’s important that they are made fully aware of all the options that are available, including risk-reducing surgery and extra breast screening. Breakthrough’s best treatment guidelines – which can be downloaded from our website – provide essential information for women, letting them know what they should expect from their treatment and what their options are each step of the way.

When high-profile people share their personal medical history it is inevitable that members of the public begin to ask questions about what this means for their own health. Jade Goody’s untimely death led to an unprecedented surge in the number of women being tested for cervical cancer – a turnaround which no doubt saved lives.

In this case, the “Angelina effect” is likely to be more complicated. This faulty gene is very rare and the majority of women should not panic unnecessarily. Breast awareness – the touch, look, check message – and knowledge of family history are the best ways a woman can understand and take control of her own risk.

Though Angelina decided that a preventative mastectomy was the right choice for her, this may not be the case for another woman in a similar situation. Thanks to great advances in research, we’re able to pinpoint when people like Jolie are BRCA carriers, and therefore at risk, allowing these women to take steps to reduce their risk as appropriate. We’re working hard at Breakthrough to identify the causes of breast cancer so that in the future women at high risk have even more, potentially less-invasive, prevention options.

James Jopling is director for Scotland at Breakthrough Breast Cancer.