Angelina Jolie’s recent revelation that she had a preventive double mastectomy has motivated many women to think about facing breast cancer. Many women, however, don’t know much about the test that can predict the probability of one’s chances of getting a disease that someone else in her family has had.
The knowledge of existence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that reveal an increased risk of breast cancer is relatively new. So, how did we acquire awareness of these genes?
Ironically, “Decoding Annie Parker,” an upcoming movie about the discovery of BRCA1, just completed filming earlier this year. Helen Hunt plays geneticist Mary-Claire King, who spent years researching families with histories of cancer and identified BRCA1 in 1990.
Based on true events, “Decoding Annie Parker” follows a 15-year war waged on both scientific and emotional fronts by a pair of women demonstrating extreme bravery under pressure. Annie Parker (Samantha Morton), who lost her mother and sister to breast cancer, is diagnosed with the disease at age 29. Elsewhere, geneticist Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) is researching the idea of an undiscovered link between DNA and cancer, a process that finds her scrambling for both funding and the support of her very skeptical colleagues.
“Decoding Annie Parker” has been playing at film festivals around the nation and will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France this month, with a general release expected in the fall.
The film focuses on Annie Parker who doesn’t remember a time in her life when cancer was not present.
Her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with Annie in 1951 in Toronto. Fourteen years later, she died of ovarian cancer. In all, Parker would lose her mother, cousin and sister to cancer prior to being diagnosed herself before she was even 30.
At the time, most oncologists did not believe there was a genetic link to cancer, but Parker wasn’t convinced.
She kept insisting that it just seemed like there had to be more to it than bad luck. She believed there had to be something in her family tree that was causing all her loved ones to die from this very mysterious disease.
Mary-Claire King began her research in 1974 at the University of California, Berkeley, when she was only 28 years old.
She knew it had been clear for decades that breast cancer clusters in some families. King would cite records of families in which women were fit and healthy and doing everything right. The bold and out-of-the-blue series of tragedies were too much to be chance she thought.
Over 17 years, King searched for a genetic link to the disease, constantly thinking about the women who could be saved by her research.
In 1990, King demonstrated that a single gene, BRCA1, was responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers. As a result, women with a family history of breast cancer can now be screened for the gene and offered various preventative measures to reduce their chance of developing cancer.
“Decoding Annie Parker” is being shown at a time when the future of genetic testing is uncertain. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether it is legal to patent genes (Association of Molecular Pathologists v. Myriad Genetics), as Myraid Genetics did with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the mid-90s.
Today, Myraid is currently the only commercial tester of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, charging patients and insurance companies $4,000 while similar genetic screenings are performed for far less.
King’s lab is currently developing accurate and affordable testing for BRCA1, BRCA2 and other genes that can cause breast or ovarian cancer.
While King and Parker’s experiences are woven together on screen, the two have never actually met. After exchanging emails and learning about one another, they will finally come face to face at the Seattle premiere of “Decoding Annie Parker” on June 6.
Doctors recommend genetic testing for high-risk patients like Jolie, who have a strong family history of breast cancer.
If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment to discuss your unique health needs, please contact board-certified Florida OB/GYN surgeons at Gainesville’s All About Women Obstetrics & Gynecology today.