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Understanding Angelina Jolie Pitt’s medical choices

Actress, filmmaker lauded for raising awareness and saving lives, but her actions also bring up questions

March 25, 2015 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Angelina Jolie Pitt

Angelina Jolie Pitt's disclosure that she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed has raised awareness about cancer related to the BRCA mutations -- and also some questions.

File photo by Matt Sayles / AP

In late 2009 at the age of 40, Amy Byer Shainman, a mother of two from Jupiter, Florida, found out that she carried a BRCA1 genetic mutation, which put her at high risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. Tests showed that she inherited the gene from her father.

After sifting through her options with a genetic counselor and high-risk oncologist, she decided to go ahead with two preventive surgeries. In March of 2010, she had a complete hysterectomy, removing her healthy uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. Then in September of that year, she had a preventive nipple-sparing mastectomy followed by immediate reconstruction with implants.

At the time, her daughter was 8 and her son was 5, both far too young to understand why anyone would intentionally remove a healthy body part. Or to grapple with the realities of what it means to carry a genetic mutation that puts you at high risk for certain cancers.

“At that point, we discussed it in an age-appropriate manner,” she said. “I told them, ‘Mommy’s going into the hospital for a Mommy check-up.’”

Shainman knew she would eventually explain the decision to her children but wanted to wait for the right moment. That moment came when Angelina Jolie Pitt revealed in May 2013 that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy in order to hip check a BRCA1-driven breast cancer, a drastic but effective way to beat the devil at his own game.

“My daughter had seen a story online and turned to me and said, ‘Oh my god, Mom. What is up with that Jolie lady? She, like, cut off her boobs or something,’” said Shainman. “In that exact teenage tone. I took that as my cue to explain to her what she’d done — and what I’d done.”

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'On the threshold of extraordinary advances'

In speech to Rotary Club of Seattle, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. D. Gary Gilliland looks toward the future

March 25, 2015 | By Linda Dahlstrom / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. D. Gary Gilliland

Fred Hutch's President and Director Dr. D. Gary Gilliland speaks to the Rotary Club of Seattle on Wednesday, March 25.

Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

Jann Curley had one question for Dr. D. Gary Gilliland. Her husband, Bob, died 8 years ago of metastatic melanoma, only three months after being diagnosed.

Now, she wanted to know, are there new advances that would save other families from going through what hers did?

“It’s a terrible, terrible disease as you know. Eight years ago there were really only two treatments,” Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told her.

Today, he said, “we are on the threshold of a tsunami of approaches that harness our own immune systems to benefit patients who have cancer. It’s stunning to see. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen patients go home to hospice and then come back three months later (doing well).”

Gilliland spoke to a crowd of about 300 on Wednesday when he gave the keynote speech to the Rotary Club of Seattle, one of the largest chapters in the world. One of the most dramatic advances in recent years for treating cancer has been in the area of immunotherapy, he said. It’s showing incredible promise for treating melanoma and other cancers.

“As an oncologist, it takes my breath away,” he said.

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Angelina Jolie Pitt reveals she had ovaries removed

The actress has the BRCA1 mutation, which puts her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer

March 24, 2015 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Angelina Jolie Pitt

Angelina Jolie Pitt announced Tuesday that she's had her ovaries and Fallopian tubes removed to combat her risk of cancer.

File photo by Matt Sayles / AP

After actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie Pitt went public two years ago with her choice to have a preventive double mastectomy to combat the risk of breast cancer, she hinted that another surgery awaited her.

Jolie, who lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer, has the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which puts her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer.

Now, in an opinion piece published in The New York Times, she has announced that last week she also had surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. 

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When the doctor is the patient

A kidney transplant and a cancer diagnosis helped shape the career of infection-control expert Steve Pergam

March 23, 2015 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Steve Pergam, right, chats with a colleague.

As director of infection control at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dr. Steve Pergam works to protect a subset of people who are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases: cancer patients. Here he is shown with graduate research assistant Arianna Miles-Jay.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

As a first-year medical student at University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Steve Pergam volunteered for a vaccine campaign in Nicaragua, bringing basic childhood immunizations to squatters living in cardboard shacks. When he returned to Nicaragua the following spring to deliver a second round of immunizations, he found that local health care workers had already done so. His earlier efforts had helped put the impoverished community on the government’s radar.

“One of the things I really liked about infectious diseases was I actually felt I could make a tangible difference,” he said, reflecting recently on the experience that sparked his interest in what would become his life’s work.

Having seen firsthand the toll that such diseases take on developing countries, Pergam assumed that like many others in the field he would go on to work internationally.

Instead, as director of infection prevention at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Pergam today works to protect a subset of people who are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, even in developed countries: cancer patients.

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On the quest for truth

The Women’s Health Initiative launches two new studies to find out the real benefits of multivitamins, cocoa and exercise

March 20, 2015 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Cocoa beans

Does cocoa extract reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in older adults, and does taking multivitamins help reduce the risk of cancer? Two new Women's Health Initiative studies aim to find out.

Photo by FeaturePics

The Women’s Health Initiative is in the business of finding out the truth. For more than two decades, its investigators have been putting theories to the test, with results that have made a crucial difference to women’s health.

Now, WHI may be about to do it again with the launch of two large randomized controlled trials – the first in 10 years  – designed to discover the health benefits (or risks) of two popular supplements, cocoa and multivitamins, as well as better understand how physical activity impacts the health of older women.

“These studies could have a lot of public health significance,” said Dr. Lesley Tinker, a staff scientist with the WHI’s Clinical Coordinating Center, based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  “The WHI has provided researchers with a wealth of data over the years that have led to breakthrough health findings. With these two trials, we have the opportunity for additional groundbreaking results.”

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Good news at Fred Hutch: Celebrating our achievements

March 19, 2015 | By Fred Hutch staff

Derek Stirewalk and Sarah Ramsay

Recent notable accomplishments: Dr. Derek Stirewalt and colleagues examine two of the most common genetic abnormalities in AML that are widely used as prognostic biomarkers; Sarah Ramsay gave an eager audience a live demo of newly launched Argos, the self-service user interface that provides easy access to the wealth of data stored in HIDRA.

Photos by Suong Che / SCCA & Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

We want to recognize the excellent work and achievements of our staff and faculty and will be regularly highlighting them in this space. Here are some recent notable accomplishments:  

HIDRA-based self-service analytical tool Argos launched, continues to add new disease groups

Attendees of Monday’s launch of Argos, the self-service user interface designed to allow Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium members to access and analyze data being pumped into the Hutch Integrated Data Repository and Archive, or HIDRA, got a peek at some of the application’s many potential uses.

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