Angelina Jolie’s Breast Cancer Doctor is a Victim-Blaming Quack

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Meet Dr. Kristi Funk. She’s pretty, blonde, works out of an office in Beverly Hills called Pink Lotus, and has famous clients — most notably, she’s the person who Angelina Jolie saw when she famously decided to have her double mastectomy in the hopes of preventing contracting breast cancer. In other words, Dr. Funk is Oprah-ready, and so of course she’s getting the fawning interviews we expect these days out of journalists who have absolutely no clue what science-based medicine is.

Last week, Funk was profiled for The Times, a London-based newspaper with a circulation of about half a million people. Helen Rumbelow, a Times features writer, sat down with Funk and preceded to give her a multinational platform to spew more shit than what probably came out of Funk’s last detoxing colonic.

But first I want to talk a little about Jolie, since Funk is so tied to her and I want to be clear about where I stand. I have to state for the record that I did think it was quite brave when Jolie talked publicly about her mastectomy, which she said she got because she tested positive for a gene mutation that drastically increase a person’s chances of getting breast cancer. Since that time, research has been mixed on whether or not double mastectomies actually do that much to reduce the risk of breast cancer, though a paper that just came out last March suggests that it does help women with their mutation in the BRCA-1 gene, though not those with the mutation in BRCA-2. Jolie had BRCA-1, so it looks like the science is with her.

After Jolie’s story went viral, there was an uptick in the number of women who requested genetic testing, but there wasn’t an uptick in mastectomies because the vast majority of those women didn’t have the mutation. Doctors only recommend the test if a person has a strong family history of breast cancer, so in the end it appears that Jolie’s story may not have saved lives so much as it scared a bunch of women needlessly and made them spend a lot of money — at $3,000 a test it added up to an increase in spending on genetics testing of about $13.5 million total.

So kind of a mixed bag, there — I want women to feel more empowered about their health and to also feel okay about not having breasts, but I also want women to understand relative risks and to not panic if they don’t need to. After all, needless panic can result in other medical problems.

But still, I never thought that Jolie’s cancer doctor was a quack, until I read her profile in The Times. In a completely gullible, idiotic interview, Helen Rumbelow lets Funk prattle on at length about all kinds of nonsense, including bragging about Jolie’s story increasing the number of women requesting genetic testing for no good reason. She also says that breast cancer occurs due to dairy intake, so you’d better go vegan. She says it’s “crystal clear that the body’s cellular response to animal protein and fat is nothing but dangerous,” which is garbage. No citation given or even requested. This is pure fear-mongering. Yes, eating a tremendous amount red meat and processed meat may increase your risk of certain types of cancers, particularly bowel cancer, but that’s a relative risk. It’s very tiny, and eating the occasional sausage is not going to give you breast cancer. Going vegan will not prevent breast cancer. And I say all this as a person who doesn’t eat red meat or processed meat, for a number of reasons including health.

Funk even tells Rumbelow that if her daughter continues having a glass of milk every day, she will grow taller, sure, but it’ll also be “setting the stage for illness.” There is no credible evidence to support the idea that dairy consumption leads to breast cancer, and in fact there is research to suggest that women who drink milk are actually less likely to develop breast cancer.

It’s such a ridiculous claim that it makes her next statement even more ridiculous: she acknowledges that alcohol increases breast cancer risk, but because it’s “hearth healthy” she still drinks a glass a day. Friends, if you want to debate what has the strongest possibility of being directly linked to breast cancer, the research is clear that it’s alcohol, not dairy. The difference is that Funk likes alcohol and it’s just not as trendy to give that up. Sure, it may have benefits for your heart, but you could easily get those benefits and many, many more by just going for a long walk or skip rope for 10 minutes. In this case, though, Funk has decided it’s okay to “compromise.”

And that’s the thing — it IS okay to compromise. You can’t live your life according to observational studies that show correlations between every little thing and disease risk. You’ll go insane! Running is great for your health and hell on your knees. Diet Coke is great for curbing your appetite and terrible for your teeth. Reading a book on your iPad at night is great for your brain but bad for your sleep cycle. That’s life, and it doesn’t help to mislead the public into thinking that certain foods or behaviors will put them at risk in any meaningful sense when they just don’t. And it’s idiotic to tell people that they can be protected by veggies, green tea, olive oil, ground flaxseed, and aspirin when there’s just no credible evidence to say that (yet the article does, all in one short paragraph).

The danger of all this is presented in the very first paragraph of the article: Rumbelow says that women used to consider breast cancer an act of fate, but the truth is that it’s women themselves who are responsible for giving themselves cancer. It’s fucking disgusting to tell a woman battling breast cancer that she’s to blame for not being vegan enough, or not eating enough flaxseed/olive oil smoothies. The science is complicated, and so are the reasons we get cancer. If you want to blame someone for causing cancer, blame tobacco companies who knew the scientific consensus and covered it up for years. Don’t blame a victim.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. “After Jolie’s story went viral, there was an uptick in the number of women who requested genetic testing, but there wasn’t an uptick in mastectomies because the vast majority of those women didn’t have the mutation”.

    In fact if you check the original article, we do not know whether the women had the mutation or not, or whether they had a family history or not.

    It seems that the insurance companies paid for the tests which could suggest that they did.

    If not, I totally agree with your whole well written article. Well population screening is a waste of time and money and ends up needlessly scaring a lot of people.

    Unfortunately this was more like a triple blind study – the patients didn’t know what was going on, the researchers did’t know, in fact nobody knew what was going on.

    1. In fact, you do not need to tie your post in with that reference at all, it’s strong enough and true enough to stand on its own. It’s the same stuff we were taught about population screening 50 years ago. There are actually WHO guidelines on such to avoid wasting scarce resources,

      Speaking of insurance companies, they are a new and frightening reason to avoid unnecessary genetic testing. They are a bunch of vultures who will stop at nothing to deny your claim and in this gee whiz wonderful new age of IT and AI (implemented so skillfully with all the proper safeguards, NOT, don’t get me started what a clusterfuck!) even your most private health information WILL end up in the wrong hands.

      Of course, if you have a family history, or especially have a tumour biopsied, you must go ahead with genetic testing because it could very well save your life.

  2. I make a rule that if “a study says”, it should be taken as “this increases or decreases your chances by less than 1%, maybe”.

    And yeah, just listening to all this nutrition advice is just going to give you a Cluster C personality disorder. Eggs are good, eggs are bad, eggs are good. Carbs good, protein bad; carbs good, fat bad; fat good, carbs bad; some fat good, some fat bad. Megadoses of this vitamin or that do something good, oh wait, you should avoid megadoses of fat-soluble vitamins because that can be toxic. You should eat soy because phytoestrogens and you should avoid soy because phytoestrogens. Eat six small meals or three big meals.

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