The celebrity had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to avoid developing cancer. Drastic? Our M.D. says it was actually quite smart
After having a double mastectomy two years ago, Angelina Jolie Pitt has shared the substantial news that she’s undergone a second preventative surgery in response to her BRCA gene: She had her fallopian tubes and both ovaries removed last week.
In another op-ed for the New York Times, the actress revealed that after recently learning she had unnaturally high inflammatory markers—a common sign of early cancer—she underwent tests to confirm the grim news. Even though her scans were clear and tumor test came back negative, Jolie Pitt decided to go ahead and have the preventative surgery she had been considering for a while, removing both reproductive organs in order to dramatically reduce her odds of developing the cancer her mother died from. (Find out 6 Ways to Help Fight Ovarian Cancer.)
And while it may seem like an unnecessarily drastic decision, since her chances of currently having early stage ovarian cancer were very low, it’s actually a smart decision. Women who have Jolie Pitt’s BRCA mutation have a much higher risk of developing ovarian cancer—increased from the average 1.7 percent to 50 percent, explains Karen H. Lu, M.D., director of the High Risk Ovarian Cancer Screening Clinic at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and member of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Jolie Pitt makes a point in her op-ed that she did not have the surgery solely because of her gene mutation. The three family members she lost to cancer tipped her decision over the edge. And while experts still aren’t entirely sure how family history affects our risk for ovarian cancer, the research shows that just having the gene is a significant enough indicator to make the profound decision worth considering, Lu explains. In fact, because the surgery is so drastic and the BRCA gene is so strongly associated with an increased risk, some physicians won’t consider the surgery without first performing genetic testing, she adds.
Jolie Pitt’s decision was likely not one she made lightly. Having your ovaries removed essentially puts you into menopause, Lu says. That means you experience all the surface-level side effects, like hot flashes, night sweats, and decreased libio, but also the physiological ones, like increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease. (Learn 4 Things You Didn’t Know About Ovarian Cancer.)
If Jolie Pitt’s decision has you thinking about your own cancer risk, we’re glad. But don’t assume every case needs as drastic of an action as she took.
“Family history is first and foremost the easiest determinate in your risk of cancer,” Lu explains. For ovarian cancer, look at who has had this type as well as breast cancer on both your mother and your father’s side. If there is a pattern of diagnoses, talk to your doctor about whether you should consider getting tested for the gene. (It's not always passed down, though. See: 5 Things You Should Know about Non-Genetic Ovarian Cancer.)
If they think you should, it’s really important to speak with a genetic counselor or specialist, Lu advises. Testing and learning your cancer risk can be a very, very overwhelming experience, and the specialist can help you understand what it means if your results are positive or negative, as well as if now is the right time for you to find out. Experts typically recommend you start the screening 10 years before the youngest age a relative was diagnosed so doctors can catch any potential tumors at an early and more treatable stage—but in the end, the decision and timing of testing is a deeply personal decision, Lu adds.
And Jolie Pitt would agree. Her op-ed, in fact, closes on that sentiment: “It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”