Angelina Jolie’s new revelation a step forward for women’s health

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Angelina Jolie has once again impressed me with her courage in discussing the very personal and potentially life-saving choices she has made about her health.

Angelina revealed she recently underwent surgery for the removal of her ovaries, called an oophorectomy, as well as the removal of her fallopian tubes, called a salpingectomy. The reason she did this is because, as you all know, she carries a gene marker that puts her at risk for developing ovarian cancer, a disease her mother died from when she was just 56 years old. This news comes two years after she announced having a prophylactic double mastectomy to help prevent breast cancer.

Although there are many common links between breast cancer and ovarian cancer, there is a big difference between how each cancer is diagnosed. There are many tools to detect breast cancer, including mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy and MRI. But in the case of ovarian cancer, these organs are walnut-sized tissues that are well imbedded in the pelvic area where you typically don’t see signs or symptoms until it’s too late. This is why the mortality rate is so high for this disease, because by the time patients have bloating and an enlarged abdomen, the cancer has already spread.

In patients that are very high risk that carry genetic markers, they are monitored at regular checkups with ultrasounds and blood tests. According to Angelina, it was an elevated blood test that led her and her team of doctors to decide on surgically removing her ovaries and fallopian tubes. A common test used in this type of situation is a blood test called CA-125.

I applaud her transparency in sharing this very personal choice with women around the world. In doing so, she is helping to bring more understanding to this disease. Her openness also brings to light that attention must be paid to developing better tests to screen women for ovarian cancer.