Angelina Jolie's decision to have a double mastectomy after learning she had a gene that increased her chances of getting breast cancer has sparked an interest in the Saint Louis University Cancer Center's hereditary cancer screening program.

Suzanne Mahon, DNSc, an advanced practice nurse and genetics expert who directs SLU's program, said Jolie's public disclosure of such a personal decision was a wakeup call to women who know cancer runs in their family and felt ready to find out if they carried the gene putting them at high risk for the disease.

"Her public announcement was a really good thing. Not all of these people who called me need genetic testing, but it's a good thing for them to find out. They can understand their risk and make an informed choice," Mahon said.

Women who typically are at genetic risk for breast cancer have a close relative who developed the disease when young, often before age 50. Women also should consider having a genetic risk assessment if they have family members from multiple generations -- grandmother, mother, aunt, sister and daughter -- who have breast and/or ovarian cancer.

Mahon said many of her callers fell into two groups -- those with members of their families who have received genetic screening but were undecided before about getting tested and those who have a strong family history of cancer.

"In deciding whether or not to have the screening, patients should ask if that is something I really want to know about myself," Mahon said. "If I know I am at high genetic risk of developing cancer, am I going to do something with that information?"

Genetic screenings for those without insurance or in financial need are underwritten by the St. Louis Men's Group Against Cancer and private donors. Counseling services are free of charge to all.

"Genetic counseling and testing can clarify your risk of cancer. If you under-estimate your risk, you might not have the information you need to make good decisions about prevention and early detection. If we prove you don't have the risk, that can be a big relief," Mahon said.

To learn more about the SLU Cancer Center's heredity risk assessment program, call 314-268-7055.