Star survivors help, hinder breast cancer awareness

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Angelina Jolie. Christina Applegate. Suzanne Somers. Cynthia Nixon. Wanda Sykes. Giuliana Rancic. Sharon Osbourne. Peter Criss.
The list of celebrities who have gone public about their experience with breast cancer goes on and on, with a growing number speaking out each year.
The effect has been mostly positive, says Nancy Healey, the executive director for Central and South Jersey Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
"When a celebrity comes out about their experience with breast cancer, it really invigorates the conversation," Healey says. "People start talking about it again."
But it is important for people to not base their breast cancer treatment on the experiences of celebrities.
"Sometimes celebrities, in trying to help people have a positive experience and outcome like they did, say: 'Oh no, don't do that. Do what I did,' " Healey says. "Breast cancer is different for everyone. It is really a question of finding out what works for you."
One misconception unintentionally perpetuated by celebrities is that the BRCA gene, known as the "breast cancer gene" is common, says Laurie Kirstein, a breast surgical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick.
Jolie, Applegate and Osbourne have spoken about having the BRCA gene and their decisions to have preventive double mastectomies.
However, only 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer is a result of the gene. A double mastectomy is not necessary for everyone, with or without the gene, says Kirstein.
"I think what Angelina Jolie did was incredibly brave and the right thing for her, but it isn't the right thing for everyone," Kirstein says.
At the Rutgers Cancer Institute, more breast cancer survivors have inquired about needing a double mastectomy since Jolie went public with her decision this spring, says Kirstein.
For breast cancer survivors who don't have the BRCA gene, the risk of the cancer coming back in a different breast than where it started is incredibly low, she adds. This makes a double mastectomy medically unnecessary in some cases.
"Sometimes breast cancer comes back in the same breast if you've had a lumpectomy, but that is simple to treat," Kirstein says. "The real concern is the cancer coming back as bone cancer or another type of cancer, and taking off the other breast isn't going to prevent that."
Celebrities speaking about having the BRCA gene also have prompted people to come to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune to be tested for the gene, says Denise Johnson Miller, the director of breast surgery at the center. Although most tested did not have the gene or any signs of breast cancer, the increase in visits was still positive, Miller says.
"The fact that people are coming in and inquiring about their health is great," Miller says. "Sometimes we find out that their breasts are OK, but it turns out they have hypertension or other health problems that need to be addressed."
Along with the preventive measures celebrities are taking to avoid breast cancer, celebrity treatment choices for breast cancer have been in the spotlight throughout the years.
One notable example is Suzanne Somers, who made the choice to forgo chemotherapy in 2001 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing a lumpectomy and radiation, she chose to try alternative treatments, many of which were controversial.
She published a book, "Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer — And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place," in 2009. The book discusses alternate treatments that don't require chemotherapy, radiation, and in some cases, don't even require surgery.
Somers also has been publicly speaking against the use of many conventional cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, since her diagnosis.
Kirstein believes Somers' message may have influenced some people to make dangerous decisions about their breast cancer treatment without consulting their doctors. Kirstein had a patient who tried to treat her cancer using just natural treatments for a year before she came to the Rutgers Cancer Institute. When Kirstein first met her, she was already in stage four.
"(Somers') advice kind of steered women toward just using alternative medicine to treat their breast cancer, and for most people, (this) will not produce a good result. We promote it, but it should be used alongside medical treatments," Kirstein says. "When a celebrity comes out with their story, they do have a responsibility to give context and not just promote what they did."
Despite the negative elements, Kirstein believes celebrities should continue to share their experiences because it promotes awareness of the disease and early-detection methods.
"Anything that gets women thinking about doing self-breast exams, getting mammograms or going to their health-care provider is positive," Kirstein says.
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