Angelina Jolie’s mother had breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer, and her maternal grandmother also had ovarian cancer—strong evidence of an inherited, genetic risk that led the actress to have both of her healthy breasts removed to try to avoid the same fate, her doctor said Wednesday.
Jolie, 37, revealed on Tuesday that she carries a defective BRCA1 gene that puts her at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. She had mastectomies in February followed by reconstruction with implants in April, Dr. Kristi Funk said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Funk treated Jolie at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills and detailed her care on the center’s website. She would not disclose when Jolie learned she carried the faulty gene, which gives a woman up to an 87 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 54 percent chance of ovarian cancer.
“This family history would certainly meet any insurance carrier’s criteria to cover genetic testing,” Funk wrote.
It is unclear whether Jolie will have her ovaries removed, although she wrote in her op-ed piece in the New York Times that she “started with the breasts” because they posed the highest cancer risk.
Removing the ovaries is often advised for women with such gene mutations, said Dr. Charis Eng, a medical geneticist and cancer specialist at the Cleveland Clinic who had no role in Jolie’s care.
“We usually say ‘try to have your kids”’ and then have your ovaries removed by age 40, Eng said. It’s not possible to remove every speck of breast tissue, but removing the breasts and ovaries leaves very little behind that could develop cancer, so it dramatically lowers a woman’s risks, she explained.
On the surgery center’s website, Funk described Jolie’s three operations, which were done through the crease underneath each breast. Jolie’s partner, actor Brad Pitt, “was on hand to greet her as soon as she came around from the anesthetic, as he was during each of the operations,” Funk wrote.
On Feb. 2, Jolie had a procedure aimed at preserving the nipples, which usually are removed when a mastectomy is done to treat breast cancer. Half of the skin is lifted from the surface of the breast tissue and a small disc of tissue is taken to be checked for cancer.
The tissue proved healthy and on Feb. 16 she had the two mastectomies. Doctors also took an unusual step: injecting dye to determine which lymph nodes in her arms were draining fluid from the breasts. Those nodes would be most likely to contain cancer if any turned out to be lurking in the breast, Funk explained.
When a preventive mastectomy is done, “there’s a 2 to 8 percent chance” of finding cancer, even though there was no indication of cancer beforehand, Funk said. Stitches or a tiny clip can be placed to show the location of these key “sentinel” lymph nodes in case Jolie ever were to develop cancer in the future and those nodes would need to be checked again.
Also during this operation, doctors placed a tissue expander, a balloon-like device that is slowly inflated with saline to stretch the skin and make room for a permanent implant. Even though the implant could have been done at the time of the mastectomy, Jolie chose the two-step procedure to optimize the final cosmetic appearance.
Four days after her mastectomies, “I was pleased to find her not only in good spirits with bountiful energy, but with two walls in her house covered with freshly assembled storyboards for the next project she is directing,” Funk wrote on the website.
On April 27, doctors did her reconstruction, using a newer teardrop-shaped implant plus sheets of cadaver skin, which “creates like a sling under the implant” to give a more natural look, Funk said.
The website describes how women with gene mutations that raise their risk for cancer are monitored starting at age 18, but Funk said she could not disclose when Jolie was tested and learned she had the BRCA1 gene. About 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers and about 15 percent of ovarian cancers are thought to be due to BRCA gene mutations.