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Helen Hunt stars in Decoding Annie Parker, a film about the discovery of the gene responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers.
Helen Hunt stars in Decoding Annie Parker, a film about the discovery of the gene responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers.

How an Ontario woman’s cancer triumph became a Hollywood film Add to ...

Annie Parker was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980 at age 29. She opted for a radical mastectomy. At 38, the Toronto mother was told she had third-stage ovarian cancer. Again, she beat terrible odds.

In 2006, Parker’s oncologist delivered a third blow. “It was a tumour behind my liver,” says Parker, now 62, who lives in Brampton, Ont. “Each time I got a diagnosis I was so angry – it wasn’t fear – I just refused to be beaten by this hideous disease.”

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As cancer patients go, Parker’s story is remarkable. She fought the disease over a span of three decades, at a time when there were more question marks than answers, few support groups, and researchers had yet to make the link between cancer and family history. The environment – not genetics – was deemed the primary cause.

Now, Parker’s improbable survival story has an equally unlikely Hollywood twist. After a chance meeting with a Vancouver physician who writes screenplays on the side, and avid interest from a veteran Los Angeles cinematographer/director, a film about her life with cancer will soon hit theatres worldwide. More than 50 charity-sponsored screenings have already raised $630,000 and its message is clear: It’s important to educate women about preventive options so they can have control of their life.

Decoding Annie Parker focuses on the genetic discovery that proved women like Parker (played by Samantha Morton), with a vast family history of cancer, inherited the disease. It wasn’t by chance.

Parker lost her mother to cancer when she was 13. Both her sister and first cousin died of breast cancer before they were 40. She became obsessed with finding research that supported her hunch that “faulty genes” could be hereditary. Finally, in 1990, she got back-up when U.S. geneticist Dr. Mary-Claire King (played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt) identified the breast-cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutations that have garnered worldwide attention since Angelina Jolie decided to have a preventive double mastectomy because BRCA1 had been passed down to her.

“There was no organization you could really turn to very much back then, so you were doing it largely on your own. I was obsessed with trying to figure out what was going on, and that’s partly to blame for my [first] marriage falling apart,” says the handsome woman, who is in charge of corporate sales at the Living Arts Centre of Mississauga. “Back then, patients with family histories like mine were told it was just ‘bad luck.’ I was told to get psychiatric help, that I was a hypochondriac, that it was all in my head. I never believed it. I knew in cases like mine, and thousands of other women with the mutations like Jolie, that something was badly amiss.”

King’s research was a pivotal breakthrough that empowered women to make informed choices about whether to have a prophylactic mastectomy or an oophorectomy (surgical removal of one or both ovaries). Today, about 5 per cent of all breast-cancer cases and between 4 and 11 per cent of ovarian-cancer cases stem from BRCA mutations. The Canadian Cancer Society says that women with BRCA mutations have a 40- to 85-per-cent chance of developing breast cancer in their lives. Women with a BRCA1 mutation face a 25- to 65-per-cent chance of ovarian cancer, while women with a BRCA2 mutation have a 15- to 20-per-cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Decoding Annie Parker is co-written by Vancouver physician Michael Moss, along with the Los Angeles father-son duo Steven and Adam Bernstein. (The former is a veteran cinematographer who shot Oscar-winner Monster with Charlize Theron.)

Moss heard of Parker through a colleague, who was one of her many Toronto caregivers. He recalls being captivated by her story and floored by her strength. “I told her our chances of getting this film produced were one in 20,000,” says Moss.

It took seven years to get made. Steven Bernstein, who was best known in Hollywood for credits on goofball comedies like Scary Movie 2, White Chicks and The Waterboy, was looking for a serious-minded project with heart and humour. He set his sights on finding a Canadian script. Repeatedly, Bernstein was told by his Hollywood cronies he’d never raise the money. Even Moss, who writes screenplays in his spare time when not doing his day job as medical director of LifeLabs in Vancouver, doubted it would ever see the light of day.

“I still can’t believe it happened,” says a bemused Moss, sitting with Parker at a charity-sponsored screening in Toronto last week. (The funds raised went to Princess Margaret Hospital.) The film also stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff.

“Annie’s story is an ‘everywoman’ story,” Moss said. “I always appreciated that mastectomy is disfiguring, but I’d never really thought deeply about the emotional impact it could have and the visceral impact on relationships, on family, and the woman’s sense of self. People like her and Jolie have started a lot of conversations and they’ve helped remove some of the stigma from the word mutation.”

Parker says if she’d known in her 20s about BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, she “definitely would have had preventive prophylactic breast removal.” As for removing her ovaries, like Jolie, she’s undecided.

“At the age I am now – absolutely,” says Parker, who is remarried to a “wonderful” man, Michael Warby. (Her first husband died of colon cancer.) “If I was much younger, and still thinking of having children, I might hold off. However, I’d have the regular ultrasounds, MRIs, etc.”

At the end of the screening last Tuesday at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre, Parker received a standing ovation. One woman stood up and told Parker she’s been waffling on taking the BRCA Analysis blood test. The film, which ends on an inspirational note, had her thinking it might be wise to go ahead.

“I was very touched,” says Parker, who has had countless women come up and ask for her to autograph their BRCA gene results after screenings. “We’ve come a long way since my first diagnosis, and I’m grateful. Sadly, people’s first thought when they get a cancer diagnosis is, ‘I’m going to die.’

“I’m living proof that’s not the case. I know I was left on this Earth to tell this story.”

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