FORCE Responds to Melissa Etheridge in AARP Magazine

Here is FORCE’s response to the recent article in AARP magazine in which Melissa Etheridge makes some completely ridiculous statements about BRCA testing and “turning on and off” BRCA mutations:

Dear AARP Magazine Editors,
This letter is in response to your article on “Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge Beat Cancer and Heartbreak” in the October/November issue of AARP magazine. In the accompanying graphic “How They Beat Cancer”, Melissa Etheridge is quoted as saying “I have the BRCA2 gene but don’t encourage women to get tested. Genes can be turned on and off. I turned my gene on with my very poor diet.” This statement reflects a misunderstanding of the role of the BRCA2 gene in cancer, and presents information that is dangerously misleading to your readers.
Everyone is born with two copies of both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which play essential roles in preventing cancer. Individuals born with a change or mutation in one of these genes bear a higher lifetime risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers than those without a mutation not because the gene is “turned on” but because they lack a working copy of one of the genes involved in preventing cancer development.
Ms. Etheridge has disclosed that she has a mutation in the BRCA2 gene. “Turning the gene on” has nothing to with the increased cancer risk. While everyone benefits from a healthy diet and other positive lifestyle choices, Ms. Etheridge’s statement about turning BRCA2 on and off with diet is inaccurate and can lead to high-risk women drawing incorrect and dangerous conclusions about their ability to prevent cancer through diet alone, and may lead some women to blame themselves for a cancer they were genetically predisposed to developing.
Equally troubling is Ms. Etheridge’s suggestion discouraging women from pursuing genetic testing. The decision to undergo genetic testing is a personal one that is best made after consulting with a health care expert known as a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors educate people about their inherited risk for cancer and help them make informed medical decisions about their genetic testing and managing their cancer risk. Peer-reviewed medical research studies have shown that there are medical interventions that extend the life of BRCA mutation carriers. Genetic counseling and testing can save the life of a high-risk woman.
FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) is a national nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and family facing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. We encourage anyone who has
tested positive for BRCA1, BRCA2, or other gene mutation associated with increased cancer risk, as well as those who are concerned they might be at risk for hereditary cancer, to consult with a medical genetics specialist. Expert-reviewed information, including how to find a genetics expert in your area, is available on the FORCE website:
Sue Friedman, DVM
Founder and Executive Director
FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered
Lisa Rezende, Ph.D.
Vice President/Education
FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered
Monica Alvarado, MS, CGC
Genetics Services Regional Administrator Kaiser Permanente
Los Angeles, CA
Rachel F. Brem, MD
Director of Breast Imaging & Intervention
George Washington University Dept. of Radiology
Robert Burger, MD
Department of Surgical Oncology Director, Women’s Cancer Center Fox Chase Cancer Center
Susan Domchek, MD
Executive Director, Basser Research Center for BRCA Director, MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center Basser Professor in Oncology, University of Pennsylvania
Judy Garber, MD, MPH
Director, Cancer Risk and Prevention Program Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Karen Hurley, PhD
Clinical Psychologist, Hereditary Cancer Risk

One comment

  1. This is a good letter. It’s especially important that women don’t refrain from being tested. Each person who receives a positive test result can decide for her/himself whether to take any preventative action. Being tested – and receiving the news that I have a BRCA1 mutation – is something I view as a hugely positive event in my life. It’s given me information that I’ve used to take steps to increase my chance of living a long life – I have information that my aunts and grandmother didn’t. And unlike them I may avoid dying early.

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