Montrealer fights to raise awareness after hereditary breast cancer hit close to home

MONTREAL – Oscar-winning actor Angelina Jolie shone a light on a serious surgery to prevent cancer when she announced Tuesday that she has undergone a double mastectomy after finding out she is genetically pre-disposed to breast cancer.

It was a shock to everyone. But Jolie was not alone.

“I was in Angelina’s shoes ten years ago.”

Joanne Miller has been fighting to raise awareness for hereditary breast cancer ever since it hit very close to home a decade ago.

“We didn’t know that there was breast cancer in the family, there were no close relatives that had it – or ovarian cancer,” she told Global News.

But after her sister was diagnosed with the deadly disease, Miller discovered that she too carried the breast cancer gene known as BRCA.

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To cut her chances of developing breast cancer, Miller faced the difficult of whether to undergo a mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery.

“You have two options, you get screened, and wait to have cancer and hope to catch it early . . . or you have surgery.”

The mother of three opted for surgery at just 34 years of age. She said that she did it for her children.

Doctors at the Montreal University Health Centre (MUHC) have been performing preventive mastectomies for close to 20 years.

While the surgery has its risks, specialists insist for those who carry the gene, it’s the best way to rule out getting breast cancer.

“Between 35 and 50 is the really big risk period for BRCA,” noted Dr. William Foulkes, a cancer specialist and professor in human genetics at McGill University.

“Essentially medicine is very simple: it’s either prevention, it’s early diagnosis or it’s treatment, that’s all you have.”

The $3,000 screening test is covered by Medicare in Canada and doctors are fighting to make it more accessible and less costly.

Meanwhile, many are thrilled that Angelina Jolie has stepped forward to share her story.

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“The fact she’s talked about this procedure opening is bound to help people more comfortable discussing it,” said Dr. Foulkes.

Many in the medical community are hoping her story will help raise awareness on genetic testing.

“In the case of Angelina, she inherited the gene, presumably from her mother,” said Dr. David Rosenblatt at the MUHC. “But you can inherit this from your mother or your father’s side of the family.”

This was the case with Joanne Miller. Both she and her sister inherited the gene from their father.

Marla Miller has since passed away from breast cancer and Joanne has since raised closed to $2 million for the cause.

“After she died we started fundraising,” said Joanne.

“My sister was 41 when she died, so she was really young and we really want to prevent other families from facing the same tragedy.”

To find out more about her fundraising initiative, click here.

Local Montreal photojournalist, Phil Carpenter, recently published a book that celebrates women who have undergone mastectomies. Find out more about it here.

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