‘Decoding Annie Parker’ shines light on genetics

Annie Parker and director Steven Bernstein talk at a Q&A after the "Decoding Annie Parker" Benefit Screening for the American Cancer Society (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision for American Cancer Society/AP Images)

Annie Parker and director Steven Bernstein talk at a Q&A after the “Decoding Annie Parker” Benefit Screening for the American Cancer Society (AP Images)

The breast cancer diagnosis came when Annie Parker was 29. She had been expecting it.

The disease killed her mother, her sister and a first cousin, leaving Parker convinced that the breast cancer in her family wasn’t just a matter of chance. But she was diagnosed in 1980, long before most doctors accepted the possibility that breast cancer could be hereditary. Parker’s suspicions would later be confirmed when scientists in the 1990s identified the BRCA gene mutation she had.

“I guess much like this BRCA gene that I carry, I am going to have to say my tenacity or my stubbornness probably comes somewhere in genetics,” Parker said. “It was a gut feeling.”

Geneticist Mary-Claire King believed early on that some cancers might be hereditary, too. She spearheaded research that led to the identification of the BRCA gene mutation. A new film, “Decoding Annie Parker,” tells the story of Parker and King, portrayed respectively by Oscar-recognized actors Samantha Morton and Helen Hunt.

“Back then I was basically told to go away, to see a psychiatrist, but in my heart and in my gut I just knew that this couldn’t be all family luck,” Parker said. “There had to be some sort of core reason why this was happening to everybody in my family. Dr. King, from the medical side, was playing the same hunches.”

What we now know, thanks in part to King and Parker: Everyone has BRCA genes, which make proteins that sup- press tumors. But either parent can pass down BRCA gene mutations — known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 — that portend a much higher cancer risk. Faulty BRCA genes are relatively rare in the overall population, accounting for about 10 percent of all breast cancers and 15 percent of all ovarian cancers, but thes understanding of BRCA mutations has become increasingly mainstream.

Earlier this year, actress Angelina Jolie wrote a column for The New York Times explaining why her BRCA gene mutation led her to get a preventative double mastectomy. Some women who find out they have a BRCA mutation without a cancer diagnosis decide to have such surgeries, while others opt for aggressive surveillance.

“In some ways ignorance is bliss, but I look back on finding out as a turning point in my life and as a blessing,” said Lisa Schlager, who was 31 when she learned in 1999 that she had a BRCA mutation. “There is a very heavy emotional and health burden if you carry this mutation, but in my mind, I was also given the gift of knowledge. That knowledge has enabled me to be more proactive with my health.”

Schlager, who lives near Washington, D.C., decided to get tested after an aunt found out she was BRCA positive and approached Schlager about considering a gene test. Though Schlager had some breast cancer in her family history, she never thought it enough to be a troubling pattern.

“Not knowing much about BRCA mutations at all, I agreed to get tested,” she said. “I, too, came back positive for the BRCA1 mutation.”

Read the rest of this story by Adrienne LaFrance for Digital First Media here.

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