Is breast cancer lurking in your family?

A new PBS documentary explores the dreaded "BRCA" gene mutation, which is leading more and more women to get preventive double mastectomies.

Published October 1, 2008 3:42PM (EDT)

Joanna Rudnick is well-educated, beautiful and funny; she's also cursed with cancer's legacy. She is carrying the potentially deadly BRCA gene mutation, which gives her chilling odds of breast or ovarian cancer during her lifetime. (It's a diagnosis shared by actress Christina Applegate -- who did have early-stage cancer in one breast -- and "Gossip Girl" writer Jessica Queller, who recently wrote about the experience in her memoir, "Pretty Is What Changes." Both those women chose to get prophylactic double mastectomies.)

BRCA stands for "breast cancer," and the hereditary gene can be passed down by both males and females. Rudnick's documentary film about her experience, "In the Family," debuts tonight on PBS' P.O.V. series. In it, she explains the passage of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits health insurers from refusing to cover clients who have genetic mutations -- a seemingly snooze-worthy topic made utterly compelling in Rudnick's hands. She also explores how the patent system hinders research into gene mutations (did you even know genes can be patented? Scary, right?) and questions various policy aspects of women's healthcare funding, including socioeconomic factors. The cost of the BRCA test is -- gulp! -- $3,000.

"I really think the idea of women taking control over healthcare and control over their bodies is a feminist statement," says Rudnick, who raised half a million dollars on her own to fund the film. Indeed, "In the Family's" strongest motif is the very nature of womanhood: Are you still feminine if doctors remove your breasts and ovaries? It's something for viewers to think about, but it's a question Rudnick faces every day. "After having children, I wouldn't think twice about removing my ovaries," she says. "I will do it and I will still be a woman." Tragically, some of Rudnick's subjects in the film don't make it that far.

As a film, the documentary is best for those of hardy stock. I sobbed from beginning to end, along with everyone sitting near me at the screening. Yet I'm grateful I watched it: One of the first things I did the next day was call my mother and ask questions about my genetic inheritance.

By Jessica Wakeman

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