How Decoding Annie Parker Changed Breast Cancer Treatment Forever

decoding-annie-parkerAs genetics has become more and more significant in healthcare, the media coverage has certainly increased.  And now, genes, genetic testing, and the personal stories deeply entwined with the process have become story lines for major motion pictures.

I was given an opportunity to attend one of the first showings of Decoding Annie Parker on April 9th at the Angelika Theater in Dallas.  This movie is based on a true story about an inherited risk to develop breast cancer, equaling a not-to-be-missed event for this genetic counselor.

The movie captured two parallel stories; one, the personal story of Annie Parker (Samantha Morton) and the other about the scientific research conducted by Dr. Mary Claire King (Helen Hunt) and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley in the field of breast cancer genetics.

Annie Parker had lost several relatives to breast cancer and feared that there was something ‘inside of them’ causing breast cancer in the family.  As more women in her family developed cancer, she became determined to learn why.

Her doctors dismissed her belief about a hereditary predisposition and her family was frustrated with the amount of time she spent devoted to learning about a supposed genetic link.  Her relationship with husband Paul (Aaron Paul) was well portrayed, showing that cancer is not a disease that affects just one person, but rather an entire family; showing that dynamic really made this story moving and relatable.

Meanwhile, Dr. King was also certain that there was a genetic predisposition to breast cancer and was faced with the same amount of disbelief from her colleagues as Annie was faced with from her physicians.

Her research regarding the location of the ‘breast cancer genes’ is thought to be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time, helping pave the way for other critical genes to be identified in various diseases.  Genetics aficionados all over will be pleased to see some of her story and research portrayed on the silver screen.

The story did an excellent job capturing both of these women’s hard work and determination to prove something they both believed so strongly in.

Not captured in the movie was the current application of genetic testing to women with a family history of breast cancer and how we can use the information about BRCA1 and BRCA2 to determine who in the family is at increased risk.  Genetic predispositions to cancer are usually inherited in a dominant matter, meaning children have a 50% chance of inheriting a mutation from an affected parent.  This information can really affect families, knowing who needs preventative treatment and who is not at increased risk.

Another component to the Mary Claire King story that was only alluded to at the end of the movie is the patent of BRCA1 and BRCA2 held by Myriad Genetics.  This laboratory is the only one in the United States that is able to perform this genetic testing, which is an area of significant controversy in the genetics community.

The concept of patenting a genetic sequence, a succession of letters encoding our genetic makeup since the creation of the human race, is hotly debated.

In fact, the case will return to court on April 15th 2013, with a decision expected to be made this summer.  BRCA1 and BRCA2 are certainly not the only genes patented in the United States, but the Supreme Court case is expected to set a precedent moving forward.

Thanks to women like Annie Parker and Dr. King, genetic testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations is widely available, as is genetic testing for many other cancer syndromes.  If you’d like to learn more about genetic testing and counseling at Baylor, call 1-800-4-Baylor.

The movie should open in select theaters nationwide this summer.  For those interested in scientific discovery, compelling personal stories, or those who would just like to see an all around good movie, you cannot go wrong with Decoding Annie Parker.  Enjoy!

About the author

Laura Panos
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Laura is a certified genetic counselor who works at Baylor Health Care System. She sees patients who have hereditary conditions or are at risk to develop conditions based on family history and provides them with testing, education, support, and resources.

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How Decoding Annie Parker Changed Breast Cancer Treatment Forever