May 15, 2013

Like Angelina Jolie, Mainer cuts cancer risk

Portland's Denali Wright says a double mastectomy can be a good choice for those at highest risk of breast cancer.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

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Denali Wright, 33, of Portland, photographed Tuesday, May 14, 2013, underwent a double mastectomy to prevent her chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gabe Souza

Angelina Jolie
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Actress Angelina Jolie wrote in a New York Times opinion piece Tuesday that she is BRCA-positive and had a preventive double mastectomy. Jolie, whose mother died of ovarian cancer, said she had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer, but that risk is now just 5 percent because of the surgery.


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The surgery can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the extent of the procedure and reconstruction.

That lack of coverage, including for low-income patients covered by MaineCare, makes it all the more important for people to have conversations about their family history and risk factors, Inhorn said.

Although the genetic testing has been done for at least a decade, there is still "a lot of fear about genetic risk and testing," Inhorn said.

Sometimes, families are fearful about what the testing will show because of the implications for their own health, he said.

Other patients may find relief in knowing their risk factor and their treatment options. A woman who chooses not to have a double mastectomy or have her ovaries removed may opt for increased screening or treatment with medication.

"It can be very emotional, but for most (patients) it's almost a relief to know they have this, their level of risk and that they can do something about it," Hoekstra said.

Denali Wright, who's a pharmacist with Apothecary by Design, said she has a strong family history of cancer. Her father had cancer when she was a child, and her mother had it a few years later. Both survived. A grandmother, a great-grandmother and a great-great-grandmother also were diagnosed with cancer.

Even though her mother survived, "it was very difficult to watch her go through that," Wright said.

For years, her mother's doctor encouraged her to get genetic testing, largely to determine whether Wright was at risk of being BRCA-positive. Men and women who have the mutation have a 50 percent chance of passing it on to their children.

Three years ago her mother, Sherry Cahoon, tested positive for the mutation and had a mastectomy on the breast she hadn't had removed during cancer treatment. Wright had her genetic testing done in Boston around the same time.

"It was kind of a family affair," Wright said.

Soon after she learned that she was BRCA-positive, Wright found a lump in her breast. She didn't hesitate to move forward with the preventive mastectomy, but she hasn't decided yet whether to have her ovaries removed.

"There was pretty much a guarantee at some point I'd have breast cancer," she said. "That wasn't something I was willing to gamble on."

Though she knew that her cancer risk would be reduced, Wright said the decision to go ahead with the surgery was tough. Afterward, she had to deal with new insecurities about her body.

"To know, at 30 years old, I'm going to have scarring and will no longer have my own breasts was very emotional," she said.

Through it all, her family members -- especially her husband, Harry -- were very supportive because "they're huge champions of doing anything we can" to fight cancer.

On Tuesday morning, Wright got a text message from a friend joking that Jolie had followed Wright's lead and that "I was a trendsetter," she said.

"I would hope having Angelina Jolie being in the forefront would help other people," she said, "so they're not embarrassed or are more willing to talk about it."


Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

Twitter: grahamgillian


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