Cancer has been a part of Annie Parker’s life for as long as she can remember. “My cancer journey started when I was actually in my mother’s womb because that’s when she found out she had breast cancer,” she says. 

Parker was only 14 when her mother passed away from breast cancer. In the decade that followed, she lost her sister and her first-cousin to the same disease and began to see a pattern.  She became convinced that she was next. 

“In my heart and my gut, I just knew that this had to be put down to more than bad luck,” she says. 

It was the 1960s and at the time, the word genetics wasn’t really in Parker’s vocabulary. In fact, it was commonly thought breast cancer resulted from environmental, not genetic, factors. Parker spent hours in the library researching causes of cancer and frequently checked her breasts for lumps. She was 29 when she found one. 

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it almost put a smile on my face,” she recalls, explaining that the diagnosis seemed to validate her research and concerns.  

“It’s been an incredible journey…I believe that through all my three cancers, the reason I’m left is to tell this story.”

Battling breast cancer in 1980 was only the beginning for Parker. She went on to survive ovarian cancer in 1988, and a malignant tumour behind her liver in 2005—three different cancers in less than three decades. 

In that time, research emerged confirming Parker’s suspicions that there was more to her cancer than bad fortune. 

Bad genes 

One in nine women are expected to develop breast cancer in their lifetime, making it the most common cancer among Canadian women.

While some of these cases are the result of “sporadic” breast cancer, research published in 1990 by Dr. Marie-Claire King confirmed Parker’s suspicion that there is also a genetic link for this disease — known as the BRCA gene mutation. During her search for answers, Parker worked with King, calling herself a “very willing guinea pig” for the geneticist’s studies. 

Women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have up to an 85 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer as well as an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. It was these odds that prompted actress Angelina Jolie to have a preventative double mastectomy when she discovered that she carried the BRCA1 gene, according to her New York Times op-ed.  

Parker was one of the first patients tested for the BRCA gene mutation and when her results came back positive, she once again smiled.  She has since become an advocate for genetic testing. 

“I feel that it’s my role to give people the tools [to get tested],” she says. “What they choose to do with it is completely up to them.” 

From genetic screening to the big screen

This incredible story of survival has now made its way from Toronto to Hollywood. 

Directed by Steven Bernstein, Decoding Annie Parker tells the story of two women and their relentless search for answers. The film intertwines the personal struggles of Parker, played by Samantha Morton, with the genetic research of King, played by Helen Hunt, and the ultimate discovery of the BRCA gene. 

During Q&A sessions after film screenings, Parker met multiple audience members who had been touched by cancer and were moved by her story. Some even brought their BRCA tests for her to autograph. 

“This is a film not just about breast cancer, in fact, in some ways it’s not even about breast cancer,” Bernstein said in an interview with the Dallas Film Society. “It’s about survival. It’s about faith. It’s about humour…It’s about those things that allow us to survive catastrophic things.” 

A woman on a mission

Prior to its release in May 2014, Bernstein and his crew showed Decoding Annie Parker at a number of film festivals, as well as numerous specialized screenings for cancer organizations across the United States and abroad. The film is estimated to have raised approximately $1 million for cancer-related charities. 

“The film also helps us push out an important message about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer that people need to see and hear,” says Willow Breast and Hereditary Cancer Support Executive Director Jeffrey Beach. Willow is partnering with Avon Canada to screen the film in Toronto on July 16, with funds going towards the organization’s information and support programs for anyone in Canada who have questions or concerns about breast and hereditary cancer — like Parker once did. 

“It’s been an incredible journey,” says Parker. “I believe that through all my three cancers, the reason I’m left is to tell this story.” 

To purchase tickets to this exclusive screening on July 16 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, visit willow.org.