On the anniversary of Angelina Jolie's New York Times op-ed "My Medical Choice", Lindsay Avner, the founder and CEO of a national breast and ovarian health organization, Bright Pink, expressed the lingering need for young women everywhere to assess their personal risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
When I started Bright Pink almost eight years ago, it was to fill a void in breast and ovarian health education. My family's history of breast and ovarian cancer, positive BRCA1 gene mutation testing results and a risk-reducing double mastectomy at 23 exposed me to a general lack of understanding about these diseases amongst my peers and an astonishingly limited amount of educational resources for women in my shoes -- those who had not been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer but wanted to take action with their health.
Since then, things have noticeably shifted. Almost a year ago to the day, Angelina Jolie's op-ed sparked a media firestorm -- every magazine, blog and TV station was talking about her big decision. In the coming months, I would regularly hear buzzwords like "BRCA positive" and "preventive mastectomy" in the media and from celebrities talking openly about their high-risk status. Concepts I had struggled to explain to friends, colleagues, even family members were brought to the forefront of national attention. I was filled with gratitude for these storytellers furthering a conversation I work tirelessly to spark amongst young women nationwide. But as the leader of an organization that is about more than raising surface-level awareness, I did fear that this increased buzz wouldn't improve the general public's understanding of these diseases.
A few weeks later, those fears were confirmed. A study published by University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins analyzed whether the spotlight on her prophylactic double mastectomy had helped better educate the public on personal risk for certain cancers or if it simply raised temporary awareness.
This study showed that exposure to the story seemed to confuse, not clarify, the relationship between family history of cancer and increased cancer risk and that people largely interpreted a negative family history of cancer as being protective against the disease. Essentially, awareness of Angelina Jolie's story was not associated with improved understanding.
My personal experiences led me to this understanding at an early age. After taking action to be the first woman in my family to know I will not get breast cancer, I came to realize that the difference between my generation and the women who came before us is our unique opportunity to know our risk for breast and ovarian cancer and take action for our health. I've told my story and countless others' stories for years to encourage women to seek their own bright future by being proactive with their breast and ovarian health. Now, we had the ultimate superstar sharing this same story, but not provoking action.
The lack of understanding and action related to Angelina's story may in part be attributed to the assumption that many readers didn't relate - they thought "that isn't me". The truth is that this story is actionable for all of us, all of the women in the U.S. between the ages of 18-45 who have never been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, but are at some risk simply by being female. We have the power to be proactive. There are things we can and should be doing now to take control of our breast and ovarian health so that it, in turn, won't control us.
Here is what we need to know about these diseases -- what I had hoped we all would learn through the buzz that ensued 365 days ago and what our team at Bright Pink will continue to shout from the rooftops for the coming 365 and beyond.
One in eight women will develop breast cancer, and one in 67 will develop ovarian cancer at some point in her lifetime. For women with a family history, the chances of developing these diseases are even higher, but, when caught early, the 5-year survival rate is greater than 92%.
The power is in your hands to detect these diseases at early, non-life-threatening stages by knowing your body, knowing what's normal for you, and knowing when and what to bring to the attention of a doctor your trust.
Furthermore, you can reduce your risks for these diseases by maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, limiting your fat intake and not smoking. Taking oral contraceptives for five years consecutively in your 20s and 30s can reduce your risk for ovarian cancer by up to 50 percent. (1)
Your personal risk for breast and ovarian cancer can be affected by your personal health history, your family's health history, and behavioral or lifestyle factors. For example, having just one first-degree relative (mother, grandmother, sister) with breast cancer can double your own personal risk for the disease.
The best way to live proactively is to first understand your personal risk and then act accordingly. Bright Pink has the tools to help you do that. Complete our Assess Your Risk tool today to gain an accurate understanding of your own personal risk for breast and ovarian cancer.
It's been a year since Jolie's announcement. You may have read her op-ed. You likely heard about it on the news or read about it online. But please don't stop there. Use the anniversary of the "Angelina Effect" to truly affect change for someone incredibly important: you. You owe it to yourself and those you love to invest in your own bright future. And Bright Pink is here to cheer you on along the way.
(1) La Vecchia, Carlo. (2006) Oral contraceptives and ovarian cancer: an update, 1998-2004 European Journal of Cancer Prevention Issue: Volume 15(2), April 2006, pp 117-124; See also: Lurie, Galina MD, MPH1; Thompson, Pamela MPH1; McDuffie, Katharine E. BS1; Carney, Michael E. MD2; Terada, Keith Y. MD2; Goodman, Marc T. PhD, MPH1, (2007) Association of Estrogen and Progestin Potency of Oral Contraceptives With Ovarian Carcinoma Risk, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Issue: Volume 109(3), March 2007, pp 597-607