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Angelina Jolie, radical strategies for cancer prevention, and genetics denialism

I had been debating whether to blog about Angelina Jolie’s announcement last week in a New York Times editorial entitled My Medical Choice that she had undergone bilateral prophylactic mastectomy because she had been discovered to have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that is associated with a very high risk of breast cancer. On the one hand, it is my area of expertise and was a big news story. On the other hand, it’s been nearly a week since she announced her decision, and the news story is no longer as topical as it was. Also, I’ve already written about it a couple of times on my not-so-super-secret other blog, making the division of blogging…problematic. So, if some of this is a bit repetitive to those who are also fans of my more—shall we say?—insolent persona, I apologize, but try to be patient. I will be doing more than just rehashing a couple of posts from last week (although there will unavoidably be at least a little of that), because there have been even more examples of reactions to Jolie’s announcement that provide what I like to consider “teachable moments.” I will start by asserting quite bluntly that in my medical opinion, from the information I have available, Angelina Jolie made a rational, science-based decision. How she went about the actual mechanics might have had some less than scientific glitches along the way (more about that later), but the basic decision to remove both of her breasts to prevent breast cancer associated with a BRCA1 mutation that she carried was quite reasonable and very defensible from a scientific standpoint.

One advantage of waiting nearly a week to write about this story is that it provided me with the opportunity to sit back and observe the reactions that Jolie’s decision provoked. One thing that I really didn’t expect (although in retrospect maybe I should have) is the pure denialism on display that genes have any effect whatsoever on cancer. I say “in retrospect I should have” because I’ve written at least a couple of times before about how quacks use and abuse the term “epigenetics” in the same way that they abuse the word “quantum” and how they seem to believe that wishing makes it so (through epigenetics, of course!) to the point where they believe that genetics is irrelevant to cancer. Indeed, they go far beyond that, asserting that, in essence, environment is all. From what I’ve been reading thus far, the second strongest strain of reaction to Jolie’s announcement (after revulsion at the “mutilation” of women that it represented to certain quacks) is pure denial that mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes portend such a high risk of ultimately developing breast cancer. This denial is often accompanied by conspiracy mongering about BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations being a “conspiracy” on the part of the “cancer industry” and Myriad Genetics & Laboratories, the company that holds the patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, to increase genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Myriad happens to have a complete monopoly on BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing because of this patent and has been criticized for its high prices and stifling of competition. There is currently a case before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding whether human genes are patentable under the law. I’m not a big fan of Myriad, and I’ll tell you why later. (Not that it matters; I’m stuck with them for now.) My personal distaste for Myriad Genetics aside, this sort of conspiracy mongering is part and parcel of the quack approach to denying the significance of BRCA1 mutations.

This denial is usually coupled with confident blather that Angelina Jolie didn’t need to undergo “disfiguring” surgery to prevent BRCA1-associated breast cancer but instead could have achieved the same—or even better!—risk reduction if only she had used this magic herb or that miracle supplement and making certain “lifestyle” changes. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but it’s everywhere.

Before I get to the reactions to Jolie’s announcement, let’s first take a look at what she did, why, and the science behind it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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