Angelina Jolie’s aunt has died of breast cancer less than a fortnight after the actress drew international praise for her decision to have a double mastectomy.
Debbie Martin died in a hospital near San Diego, California, on Sunday. The 61-year-old, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2004, was the younger sister of Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who also died of cancer in 2007.
The death is likely to further vindicate the actress’s decision to have both breasts removed after she discovered she had inherited the defective gene BRCA1, which gave her an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer.
The 37-year-old Oscar-winner, who is married to Brad Pitt, was widely praised for her courage by health campaigners and politicians. The Foreign Secretary William Hague, who visited the Democratic Republic of Congo with Jolie recently as part of their joint campaign for international action against mass rape in conflicts, called her a “brave lady” who would be an “inspiration to many”. The actress, who is a United Nations special envoy for its work with refugees, said the reason behind her decision was to reassure her three biological and three adopted children that the illness which claimed their grandmother would not do the same to her.
Jolie’s operation has sharpened the debate over genetic diagnosis, allowing high-risk patients to take pre-emptive action against life-threatening diseases.
Debbie Martin’s husband, Ron, said his wife would have chosen to undergo preventive surgery like Jolie had she known about the risk of getting cancer before her diagnosis. “We have seen Angelina a number of times since Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer,” he said.
“Debbie and I were both very proud of her recent decision to have the double mastectomy and to do everything she can to keep her family from having to go through what we’ve been through.”
BRCA1 is a mutant gene which greatly increases the chances of developing cancer. About 12 per cent of women will develop breast cancer at some point in their life, according to the US National Cancer Institute, and nearly two-thirds of women who inherit BRCA1 or a similar faulty gene, BRCA2, will contract the illness.