Actress' mastectomy announcement highlights health risk

POSTED: 5:50 PM May 14 2013   UPDATED: 12:00 AM May 15 2013
BREAST CANCER
KINGSPORT, Tenn. -

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie revealed today she has a gene that dramatically increases her chance of getting breast cancer. To cut her risks, she's undergone a double mastectomy.

The announcement is bringing genetic testing for breast cancer to light -- and leaves many women wondering if they too should be screened. We talked to a local woman Tuesday who has had the surgery and learned more about who should be tested.

About five years ago, Vicki Leonard learned she had a potentially deadly gene; she had just turned 30.

It was a gene that put her at greater risk of getting breast cancer, something that was rampant in her family. "My mom was diagnosed at 29 and passed away at 31," she told us. "Then my dad's mom and her three sisters all had breast cancer."

This young mother of a little boy didn't hesitate to take preventive measures by undergoing a double mastectomy. "[After] losing my mom when I was 11, I didn't want to put [my son] in any kind of position like that."

Vicki is a pharmacy tech with Wellmont Medical Associates' Oncology & Hematology in Kingsport. Her co-worker Debbie Pencarinha is a genetic counselor who says one in 400 women carry the genetic mutation that can lead to breast cancer, along with ovarian and pancreatic cancer.

So who should be tested? Pencarinha says family history is one of the best indicators you may be at risk. "You want to be screened more often and younger. A lot of these women, because of these genes, get cancer before age 50," she explained. "Roughtly 19 percent of them will get breast cancer before age 40."

We've learned finding out if you have the gene is simple, and can be done one of two ways: by having blood drawn, or by using a mouthwash test, which is just another way of getting your DNA.

Once you get the results, you are armed with the tools to make the best decision for you and your family. Like Vicki, who knew surgery was the only option for her. "[I have] no regrets whatsoever. The way I look at it, you take your chances from 87 percent of getting breast cancer -- 87 percent out of 100, that's very high risk -- down to less than five," she said.

Health experts recommend if you have a family history, you should see a genetic counselor and consider getting the test.

It costs about $3,000, but we're told that most insurance companies will cover that if you do have significant risk factors.

For more information, visit http://www.wellmont.org/Medical-Services/Cancer-Care/Genetic-Counseling.aspx.