HUNTER women understand better than anyone the harrowing decision Angelina Jolie had to make to have a double mastectomy.
The region has the highest rates of breast cancer screening in NSW. Almost 64,000 Hunter women, aged 50 to 69, are screened each year, almost two-thirds of the target population.
It leads to increased diagnosis and in some cases, the situation of having to decide whether to undergo a double mastectomy following cancer in one breast.
The Hunter has breast cancer diagnosis rates above the state average and its mortality rates are the second highest in NSW.
On Tuesday, the Hollywood actress revealed she underwent a double mastectomy to prevent contracting breast cancer after testing positive to the breast cancer gene and losing her mother to ovarian cancer.
Hunter geneticists said fewer than 20 Hunter women underwent purely preventative mastectomies each year.
While advocates have welcomed the increased discussion of breast cancer following Jolie’s announcement, they have also cautioned that few breast cancers are genetically linked.
Cancer Council Hunter manager Shayne Connell said only 5 to 10per cent of breast cancer cases were linked to genetics.
There were 14,000 new cases of breast cancer in Australia each year and 2700deaths.
‘‘We recommend anyone considering this form of surgery seek expert advice so they can make an informed decision,’’ Mr Connell said.
He said the main cause of breast cancer was ageing. Risk was reduced by cutting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight, balanced diet and regular exercise.
Hunter Family Cancer Service director Professor Allan Spigelman runs the service that provides genetic counselling to those faced with a positive test result for the cancer gene. He said options available to patients ranged from doing nothing to undergoing regular screenings through to preventative surgery.
‘‘Breast surveillance is effective in early detection, but not prevention, and while there is increasing evidence that oestrogen receptor blocking drugs can reduce risk, surgery provides the best protection,’’ he writes in today’s Newcastle Herald.
Hunter Breast Cancer Foundation president Rosalie Taggart said Jolie’s decision would prompt discussion among women.
She said they had cared for only a small number of women with double mastectomies but by all accounts the procedures could be painful and traumatic.
‘‘She is such a high-profile lady, to come out and tell her story could only benefit breast cancer awareness and breast cancer research,’’ Ms Taggart said.
Jolie, 37, said doctors estimated she had an 87per cent risk of breast cancer and 50per cent risk of ovarian cancer.
‘‘Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimise the risk,’’ Jolie wrote in the New York Times. Her husband Brad Pitt yesterday described his wife as ‘‘heroic’’ for making her decision.
‘‘This is a happy day for our family,’’ he said. with AAP