When Anne Redmond Parker learned she had breast cancer in 1980, she knew it was not merely bad luck.
The Toronto native had lost her mother, sister and first cousin to the disease. Yet doctors told her that a genetic link was unlikely, and that even if it existed, there was nothing to be done about it.
“There wasn’t a lot of hope years ago,” Parker, now 62, said in an interview. “Nobody talked about it. My marriage fell apart. There were no support groups.”
Parker recently attended the Philadelphia premiere of the feature film “Decoding Annie Parker.” It tells the parallel odysseys of Parker and Mary-Claire King, the American geneticist who in 1994 isolated BRCA1 — the gene that is broken in Parker and millions of others worldwide.
The film is a testament to advances in understanding and managing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
King’s breakthrough was followed by the 1995 discovery of BRCA2; by commercial tests for inherited mutations in the genes; and by genetic-counseling programs for families dealing with their irrevocable liability.
The film itself — starring Helen Hunt as King, Samantha Morton as Parker, and Aaron Paul (of Breaking Bad) as Parker’s first husband, Paul — has become a vehicle for raising awareness. First-time director Steve Bernstein, who anticipates a national commercial release next spring, partnered with nonprofit groups to offer six months of exclusive showings, with half of the revenue going to charities.
“We’ve done 28 screenings so far, including London, Paris, and Toronto,” he said. “The awareness we’ve raised is incredible. It sounds presumptuous, but when we show the film, it becomes sort of a movement.”
A recent host charity was FORCE, a Florida-based group devoted to helping BRCA-affected families.
“This movie helps to explain what a lot of people have feared,” said FORCE vice president Sandy Cohen, a BRCA1 mutation carrier who lost her mother and a grandmother to breast cancer. “It helps them understand that it affects family relationships.”
Indeed, each child — boy or girl — of an affected mother or father has a 50 percent chance of inheriting a BRCA mutation.
Having that legacy increases female breast-cancer risk up to 85 percent, and ovarian cancer risk up to 50 percent. Less well known, it also boosts the risks of pancreatic, prostate and male breast cancer.
In the United States, an estimated 940,000 people carry a defective BRCA gene, yet 90 percent don’t know it, according to FORCE.
Of course, even when they know, the self-protective options are few — obsessive vigilance or removal of healthy organs. The BRCA discoveries have not changed that fact. The actress Angelina Jolie is the latest BRCA1-carrying celebrity to reveal that she had preventive mastectomies. “I was saddened by fact that she had to make this horrific decision, but at least she had the option to make the decision,” Parker said.
Parker was treated for ovarian cancer in 1988 and for a tumor of unknown origin on her liver in 2005. That all came on top of her early losses.
“My mom was diagnosed when she was pregnant with me, so she waited to treat her cancer,” Parker said. “My dad fell apart when my mom died. My sister was 10 years older than me, and she became my surrogate mother. It was horrible to watch her die. The cancer went from her breast to her ovaries to her bowel.”
At her oncologist’s suggestion, Parker, who books corporate conferences for a living, wrote a memoir about her experiences. She persuaded a skeptical agent to look at it. He passed it on to Bernstein, a longtime cinematographer.
“Steve basically tore it apart and started from scratch” eight years ago, Parker said. “When he said he would try to get a feature film, I thought, ‘Yeah, right. This would never happen.’ “
Bernstein took dramatic liberties. The stories of Parker and King “slowly, inexorably … begin to converge, until the final, heroic, and uplifting” ending, says a promotional summary. In fact, Parker first met King several months ago, when the film won an award at the Seattle Film Festival. That’s also where Bernstein met King, who loved the movie.
“I feel blessed,” Parker said. “There are a lot of women who have been to hell and back more than me. I believe I’m here to tell this story.”