Breast Surgeon: Angelina's Actions 'Impressive'

Jolie made three important decisions other women can learn from, said Dr. Heidi Memmel of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, a breast cancer survivor herself. The actress announced she had a mastectomy.


Dr. Heidi Memmel understands exactly why actress Angelia Jolie opted to have a preventive double mastectomy, which the actress announced Monday.

"That mutation (a gene which Jolie carries)--when you're a carrier, your risk of developing cancer is as high as 80 to 85 percent," said Memmel, a breast surgeon and co-medical director of Advocate Lutheran General Hospital's Caldwell Breast Center in Park Ridge.

The surgery reduced Jolie's risk to about 5 percent, she said.

Memmel, who was diagnosed with breast cancer herself at age 36 and has been a survivor for nearly eight years, was surprised when Jolie made the announcement.

"I was really very impressed," she said, adding that not only did Jolie have the courage and foresight to have genetic testing done and make the decision to have a preventative double mastectomy, she also did a third very important thing: she chose to share the news with the public.

Because she's such a celebrity, Memmel hopes that will encourage women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer to have genetic testing. 

"I see a common misperception about genetic testing," she said. "People fear it because they think it's a ticking time bomb or else they will be discriminated against (for carrying a faulty gene)."

Neither is true, she said. Instead, doctors can give women who carry the gene more testing, such as an annual MRI in addition to the annual mammogram other women get (after age 40).

Doctors can also give women options, such as medication or preventive mastectomy or preventive ovarian removal.

"Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect at an early stage," she said. 

Jolie's mother died at age 56 from ovarian cancer, according to nbcnews.com.

Memmel said the Caldwell Breast Center offers women consultations with a medical oncologist or surgeon. The doctors can determine if genetic testing is called for, she said.

Women who undergo preventive mastectomy usually have immediate reconstructive surgery, and most surgeries today are a skin-saving or nipple-saving procedure that allows for good cosmetic results, Memmel said.

Doctors can reconstruct breasts either by using silicone or saline implants, or by taking tissue from the abdominal area, if a woman has enough fat there.

"She (Jolie) probably didn't have that done; she looks like a pretty skinny lady," Memmel said jokingly.

Women who choose preventive mastectomy may be heartened to know they can choose the size of the reconstructed breasts. They can be smaller, the same or bigger than the original breasts.

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