There’s a well known public health phenomenon whereby a celebrity’s very personal journey through a health scare or cancer diagnosis becomes publicized, which subsequently raises awareness of that particular condition.

Katie Couric raised awareness about colon cancer. At least acutely, everyone started getting their screening colonoscopies. Farah Fawcett’s battle with anal cancer got people talking about one of those cancers nobody likes to talk about. Patients suddenly started asking questions about whether or not to get anal Pap smears.

We associate Angelina Jolie with the diagnosis of breast cancer and the question of double mastectomy, and now, prophylactic salpingooophorectomy (a fancy word for removing the Fallopian tubes and ovaries).

So…do you need to get all of these, sometimes invasive, tests for cancer done? It’s like I tell my patients, it all depends on risk factors and family history. Not all cancers behave in the same way. When patients say, they want XYZ test done because “cancer runs in my family,” I have to clarify and ask which kind? In other words, which organ or part of the body was primarily affected? And more specifically, which relative(s) were affected?

The lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer is 1.4% or 1 in 70 women. For breast cancer, it’s about 12%, or 1 in 8 women. Angelina Jolie tested positive for the BRCA gene, a test which she opted for based on her family history. Her risk of developing breast cancer was over 80%, and her risk of ovarian cancer as a carrier of this gene was also increased.

The bottom line is talk to your doctor, and be upfront (with your gynecologist especially) about things like smoking and your sexual history. Get informed about your family history…and be specific. Then you can mutually decide which tests you need, and when.

P.S. I don’t look forward to getting my Pap smear done either, if it makes any of you feel better about going. I’m only human.