Category Archives: Celebrity Cancer Series

Celebrity Cancer Series: Angelina Jolie

In 2013, Angelina Jolie, the American actress, filmmaker and humanitarian, and receiver of numerous awards, made the difficult decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. Two years later, Jolie underwent another preventive surgery—this time, her ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed. Jolie lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer. A simple blood test revealed that Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, giving her an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer. Learning this, Jolie took her health into her own hands.

With an estimated 25 000 Canadian women being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer among Canadian women and the second leading cause of death from cancer. Choosing to undergo preventive surgery is not a light decision; however, a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer  greatly increases if she inherits a harmful mutation in BRCA1.

There is a common misconception that women “inherit the BRCA1 cancer gene” and that this will eventually cause a woman to develop cancer. Contrary to this belief, we need the BRCA1 gene. This gene produces proteins that help repair damaged DNA and ensures the stability of our genetic information in our cells. However, when this gene is mutated and the protein is not produced or is not functioning properly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly causing the genes in our cells to accumulate more changes that can lead to cancer.

Although 55-65 percent of women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 mutation will develop breast cancer and approximately 39 percent will develop ovarian cancer, testing positive for this mutation does not reveal that an individual will certainly develop cancer; it reveals only that they are at an increased risk. It is important to remember that other characteristics of a women can increase or lower one’s cancer risk, such as one’s reproductive history and physical activity levels. Still, less than half of breast cancer cases can be explained by well-established risk factors. Ongoing cancer research efforts here at Queen’s University will hopefully allow us to understand and treat this disease better, and eventually improve our chances for preventing this disease.

This article was written by Carmen Chan, a MSc candidate in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s University, and a Canadian Cancer Society Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT) member.

Celebrity Cancer Series: Michael Hall

Michael C. Hall is an American actor born in 1971 in Raleigh North Carolina. He began his acting career in theatre, appearing in numerous Off-Broadway shows, before taking the stage in Broadway shows like Chicago, and Cabaret.  His first major television role was playing David Fisher on the drama series “Six Feet Under”.  More recently, he is best known for his starring role as the vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan on the crime drama “Dexter”. In 2010 at the age of 38, Hall announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, and was undergoing treatment for the disease.

Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that arises in cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell, and are part of the immune system and help fight infection. These cells travel through a network of vessels called lymphatics, allowing them to move from lymph nodes and lymphatic organs, like the spleen and bone marrow, to sites of disease and infection. There are two main types of lymphocytes, called B cells and T cells. Abnormal B cells typically cause Hodgkin lymphoma. These cells no longer behave properly, and grow at an enhanced rate.

Because lymphocytes travel all over the body, the cancer can present anywhere. It is usually first observed as an enlarged lymph node, but can spread to almost any tissue or organ in the body. Michael first noticed lumps in his neck, which he jokingly referred to as looking like “alien eggs”. When biopsied, these lumps revealed that he was suffering from Hodgkin lymphoma; the same news that close to 1,000 Canadians receive each year.

Fortunately, Hodgkin lymphoma is often curable when detected early. It is most commonly treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Michael began a course of treatment after filming the fifth season of “Dexter”. He experienced some of the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy such as hair-loss, which was particularly devastating for an actor whose career involves being in the public eye.

After completing his treatment regimen, he was declared in full remission later that year. With healthy blood cells, Michael returned to his role as a blood splatter analyst on “Dexter” and went on to film three more seasons of the popular show. He remains in remission to this day.

This article is written by Kathleen Watt, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, and part of the Terry Fox Foundation Training Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research in Partnership with CIHR.