I’d have done what Jolie did: cancer survivor

With the internet abuzz with news of Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy, The Local speaks with a Swedish breast cancer survivor about the lose-lose equation she faced when she pondered removing her breasts.

I'd have done what Jolie did: cancer survivor

“When you have cancer, there really aren’t any benefits, all you can do is start weighing one set of drawbacks against another,” says Maria, 47, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.

She faced a similar scenario to Angelina Jolie’s – their mothers had both suffered from breast cancer. Jolie spoke out on Tuesday in an article in the New York Times about the death of her mother. She went on to explain that she subsequently found out she carried the cancer gene, and decided to remove both breasts in preventative mastectomy surgery.

The Swedish Cancer Fund (Cancerfonden) welcomed Jolie’s decision to go public, because celebrities could increase public awareness.

Nurse Britta Hedefalk also recognized the need to talk about cancer from her contacts with patients in Sweden.

“A lot of people tell us that talking about their disease gives their illness meaning,” said Hedefalk, who has answered patients’ queries about cancer for over two decades.

“They feel that if they reach out and help someone, getting cancer was not for nothing,” she told The Local.

READ ALSO: Why some celebrities may feel under pressure to speak out about their cancer

Because Maria’s mother had also had breast cancer, her doctors at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm sent her off to have genetic testing done. If the tests were to come back positive, Maria would run a higher risk of falling ill again once her treatment had ended.

“Being ill, you have to make decisions that you’d never ever thought you had to make,” she said.

“It’s like you’re staring at scales, with the pans on either side laden with drawbacks. You’ve just gotta see which way the scales tip, which pans have the heaviest drawbacks.”

As she awaited the results, it became increasingly clear what her choice would be if the test showed she had indeed inherited a cancer gene.

“Instead of walking around consumed by worry, a mastectomy is preferable,” Maria said.

“It’s was obvious to me.”

Living in Sweden, where taxes pay for treatment and where there is high-level medical expertise, Maria felt she would get the best breast reconstruction available.

“I knew I would risk losing sensation in my breasts, but I preferred it to getting cancer again,” she said.

The test came back negative.

Recalling the long wait, however, Maria says she also learned to look on the bright side.

“I even toyed with the idea of getting slightly bigger breasts,” she says with a laugh.

“I like my breasts, they’ve been with my faithfully since my teens, but if I was going to have to go through an operation I thought, ‘Why not?'”

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

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Nordic twins help reveal higher cancer risks

A comprehensive study of twins in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland has led to new revelations about increased cancer risks among siblings.

Nordic twins help reveal higher cancer risks
If one twin gets cancer, the other has a higher risk of getting sick too. Photo: Colourbox
Twins share the same genes, and when one gets cancer, the other faces a higher risk of getting sick too, according to a study published on Tuesday that included 200,000 people.
But just because one twin falls ill does not mean that the other is certain to get the same cancer, or any cancer at all, according the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
In fact, the amount of increased risk of cancer was just 14 percent higher in identical pairs in which one twin was diagnosed with cancer.
Identical twins develop from the same egg and share the exact same genetic material.
Among fraternal twins, which develop from two eggs and are as genetically similar as typical biological siblings, the risk of cancer in a twin whose co-twin was infected was five percent higher.
The twins in the study hailed from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway — all countries that maintain detailed health registries — and were followed between 1943 and 2010.
When researchers looked at the group as a whole, they found that about one in three individuals developed cancer (32 percent).
Therefore, the risk of cancer in an identical twin whose twin was diagnosed was calculated to be 46 percent.
In fraternal twins it amounted to a 37 percent risk of developing cancer if a co-twin was diagnosed.
The exact same cancer was diagnosed in 38 percent of identical twins and 26 percent of fraternal pairs.
The cancers that were most likely to be shared among twins were skin melanoma (58 percent), prostate (57 percent), non melanoma skin (43 percent), ovary (39 percent), kidney (38 percent), breast (31 percent), uterine cancer (27 percent).
“Because of this study's size and long follow-up, we can now see key genetic effects for many  cancers,” said Jacob Hjelmborg, from the University of Southern Denmark and co-lead author of the study.
Researchers said the findings may help patients and doctors understand more about the hereditary risks of cancer, a disease that kills eight million people around the world each year.