DETROIT - Actress Angelina Jolie stunned the world when she announced she had undergone a double mastectomy after testing positive for a gene that dramatically raised her risk of cancer.
It was a choice that Marla Ruhana of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., understands all too well. Ruhana faced the same difficult decisions as Jolie, months before the actress went public.
Now Ruhana is sharing part of her story on the big screen, in hopes of helping others navigate this emotional journey.
Ruhana is one of the patients featured in a new documentary called "Pink & Blue: Colors Of Hereditary Cancer." It's a powerful look at the lives of women and men who've tested positive for genes that increase their risk of cancer.
Watching multiple family members battle breast cancer left its mark on Ruhana.
"My sister was diagnosed at the age of 38 with triple negative breast cancer," said Ruhana. "One of my cousins was also diagnosed under the age of 40. Her sister was positive for the BRCA2. Two of our aunts on our paternal side had breast cancer."
Ruhana decided to have genetic testing and discovered she was positive for the BRCA2 gene, putting her at high risk for breast cancer.
"For me, it's 87 percent risk lifetime," said Ruhana. "It's not really a matter of if, it's a matter of when."
She also faced an increased risk of ovarian cancer. But Ruhana was determined to fight back.
"I didn't get married until I was 44, and I'm blessed with an amazing husband and two wonderful stepsons, Johnny and Marco," said Ruhana. "I think it was finding new love in my life and the blessing of having a family, I just knew that I want to be here for them."
They weighed her options and decided on surgery at St. John Hospital.
"I had my prophylactic mastectomy December 10th, 2013," said Ruhana.
She had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed two months later. Ruhana was stunned when actress Angelina Jolie announced she had made the same decision.
"I really admired her for taking time to share this story because not everyone agrees with our choices, and again, what's right for us might not be right for someone else, and so to put herself out there in that way to save lives, I really really admire her," said Ruhana.
The actress has a had a major impact on other patients around the world.
"I think what Angelina Jolie really brought great attention to is that there is a familial risk that might be inherited for ovarian cancer as well as breast cancer," said Dr. Robert Morris, gynecologic oncologist at St. John Hospital.
She also raised the profile of genetic testing.
"They come to us more for their family," said Dr. Allison Jay, a clinical geneticist at St. John Hospital. "They say 'Dr. Jay, I want the testing for my daughters who are 20.' They want the knowledge so that they can empower their daughters with that information and hopefully prevent their daughters from getting the cancer that they have."
"With the awareness that Angelina brought about, we see that more and more people are undergoing genetic counseling," said Morris. "We're seeing them approaching us at a younger age."
"Now we have next generation testing which tests for over 17 to 25 genes that are associated with cancers," said Jay. "So there's a lot more we can offer patients."
It was Ruhana's decision not to have breast reconstruction that attracted the attention of filmmakers for the documentary "Pink & Blue."
In the film, she explained the reaction she received.
"A lot of people were putting pressure on me because of my choice, our choice, not to reconstruct. I would hear things like, 'You're nuts. Who would part with their breasts and not get new ones? We live in a society where you can get new ones,'" said Ruhana.
But she has no regrets.
"The peace of mind is tremendous," said Ruhana. "I feel very empowered with the decisions that I have made. Not a lot of people, you know, get in a battle with cancer the way I have."
She hopes the documentary will help people understand this brave new world of genetic testing and the hope it may hold.
"I hope that it saves many many many lives," said Ruhana.
The documentary "Pink & Blue: Colors of Hereditary Cancer" premiered in Los Angeles and New York this fall. A Detroit screening is planned for some time in December. For more information, click here. http://www.pinkandbluemovie.com/#
To learn more about cancer genetic testing at St. John Hospital and who can benefit most from testing, click here. http://www.stjohnprovidence.org/updates-and-innovations/2015-issues/spring/genetic-testing
Ruhana says an organization called FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered really helped her through the entire process, especially by connecting her to genetic counselors. To visit the FORCE website, click here. http://www.facingourrisk.org/index.php
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