Decoding Annie Parker: Hunting the Breast Cancer Gene

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Helen Hunt in role of Mary-Claire King, PhD, in Decoding Annie Parker, a film expected to be released early in 2014.

Based on true events, Decoding Annie Parker follows the parallel stories of two women obsessed with finding a genetic link to breast cancer. And from the film’s opening frame until the closing credits roll, the absorbing tale never allows your mind to wander.

Attempting to Elude Fate

One woman is Annie Parker, played by Samantha Morton, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with Annie and died of the disease when Annie was 13. In 1978, when Annie’s older sister Joan and first cousin also die of breast cancer, she is convinced that the disease is coming for her too. Two years later, at age 29, it does.

Told by doctors that it was just “bad luck” that so many immediate family members died of breast cancer, Annie instinctively knows that there has to be an inherited cause and not random chance that doomed the women in her family to cancer and an early death. And she is desperate to avoid their fate.

After undergoing a mastectomy of her left breast, followed by grueling regimens of chemotherapy that leave her bald, sick, and exhausted from vomiting, Annie grills her doctors about the possibility of breast cancer being an inherited disease and pours over medical journals looking for any common thread that might give a clue to a genetic link to the disease.

But in 1980 little was known about the causes of breast cancer. And while Annie was seeking answers to the reason for her disease, another woman, geneticist Mary-Claire King, PhD, played by Helen Hunt, was also on a quest to prove a genetic susceptibility to breast cancer. With a clock in her office marked off every 12 minutes by pink tape to signify how often a woman dies of breast cancer, Dr. King had been researching a potential genetic link to the disease since the mid-1970s.

When the film begins, Dr. King has compiled data on about 80 women with a family history of breast cancer. Because it could take a decade or more to sequence gene mutations using the only available computer technology at the time—a primitive 2.5-ton mainframe computer—it took Dr. King until 1990 to finally discover that a single gene on chromosome 17q21, which she named BRCA1, was responsible for breast and ovarian cancers in many families.

Never Maudlin

While the film tracks Annie’s devastation over the loss of so many family members to cancer and the challenges she faced after her own breast cancer diagnosis—including a diagnosis of ovarian cancer 8 years later and the humiliation of her husband’s infidelity—the movie never becomes maudlin. Directed by Steven Bernstein, who also cowrote and coproduced the film, the movie successfully uses Annie’s quick wit and humor as a buffer against the serious subject matter.

Decoding Annie Parker is an inspiring film that gives testament to the courage and perseverance of patients with cancer and showcases the determination of scientists to identify the causes of the disease.

Raising Money for Breast Cancer Research

Although the film is scheduled for commercial release early in 2014, Decoding Annie Parker has been shown at film festivals and charity events around the country since the spring, to raise awareness of breast cancer and funds for research. In October, the Hamptons International Film Festival and The Sloan Foundation awarded director Steven Bernstein the $25,000 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which encourages the creation of more realistic and accurate films about science and technology.

Decoding Annie Parker stars Samantha Morton (Annie Parker), Helen Hunt (Dr. Mary-Claire King), Aaron Paul (Paul, Annie’s husband), Marley Shelton (Joan, Annie’s sister), Rashida Jones (Kim), and Bradley Whitford (Marshall, Annie’s second husband). ■