Decoding Annie Parker

A cancer survivor’s personal mission to educate others about genetic testing brings her story to the big screen.

By Diana Price

When Anne Parker was diagnosed with first breast and, later, ovarian cancer, she knew in her heart that, as she says, “there was something more than ‘bad luck’ involved” in her diagnoses. Having lost both her mother and her sister to the disease, she had grown up in the shadow of cancer, convinced that her family shared a deadly link. As she confronted her own diagnoses, her search for answers about the role the disease played in her family became, in her words, “all-consuming and obsessive.”

In 1998 Anne underwent genetic testing and discovered that she carries the BRCA1 genetic mutation. Armed with what she considered invaluable information about the role of genetics in predicting cancer risk, she felt compelled to share her story and educate other families about the value of genetic testing. “I wanted to write about the advantages of being tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations with the hope it would inspire women who have a family history of breast cancer to be tested,” Anne says.

Propelled by the memory of her mother and sister, Anne began to write about her experiences, embarking on a project that, she hoped, would culminate in a book that could serve as a resource for families struggling with the decision about whether to undergo genetic testing. But in November 2008, a twist of fate sent Anne’s story on a different path when she was introduced to Steven Bernstein, who was looking for a new project. That initial meeting set the wheels in motion for Anne’s story to move beyond the page to the big screen: a film adaptation of her story, titled Decoding Annie Parker, will be released in late 2012.

Michael Moss, MD (who co-wrote the screenplay for the movie with Steven Bernstein and Adam Bernstein), was drawn to Anne’s story. Their script melded her personal journey with the scientific story of geneticist Mary-Claire King’s work to discover the BRCA1 and 2 genetic mutations. The result, Dr. Moss says, is a film that follows both Anne’s story, as she loses her mother and sister and confronts her own diagnosis, and also that of Dr. King, who is working to prove a genetic link to high rates of breast cancer incidence among some family members. Throughout, Dr. Moss says, the strength and the perseverance of both women shine through as they “seek to prove something that runs counter to prevailing opinion: King faces a lack of support from the medical establishment in obtaining adequate funding for her research, while Anne’s own search for answers is dismissed as pointless obsession.”

“It has been surreal,” Anne says, of the process of watching her story transformed into a screenplay and brought to life on-screen. Exposing her and her family’s story in such a public way wasn’t an easy decision, but the opportunity to inform so many people about issues related to genetic testing was too powerful to ignore. Her surviving family members, who have all been faced with the decision about whether to undergo genetic testing, stood behind her. “My family understands firsthand the emotional impact of loss,” Anne says, “and that the more people know about the genetic mutation, and about where to turn for information, the less anxious and fearful they will be.”

Steven Bernstein, who in addition to serving as one of the film’s producers is making his directorial debut with Decoding Annie Parker, says that Anne’s experience presented a unique opportunity to share a powerful story that will be relevant for a wide audience. “The film is about a great many things—as much about what sustains us as about what makes us ill,” he says, noting that it provides valuable insight into early-detection topics.

Executive producer Johnathan Brownlee agrees that the film provides an opportunity to educate the audience and says that the script is unique in another sense too: “The story has two female lead characters, which is a rarity in film today.”

For Anne, seeing her story reach so many is a “powerful privilege.” She hopes that the movie will both entertain and provoke discussions that will lead to early detection and cancer prevention. “It is my wish to arm people in a high-risk family with information that could help them either dodge the cancer bullet or at least have it diagnosed in early stages before it spreads.”

Decoding Annie Parker

Scheduled for release in late 2012, Decoding Annie Parker features an ensemble cast that includes Helen Hunt as Mary-Claire King; Samantha Morton as Annie Parker; Aaron Paul as Annie’s first husband, Paul; Alice Eve as Annie’s friend, Louise; Marley Shelton as Annie’s sister, Joan; Rashida Jones as Annie’s friend, Kim; Corey Stoll as a doctor and friend, Sean; Bradley Whitford as Annie’s second husband, Marshall; and Bob Gunton as a physician, Dr. Benton.

The film is produced by Dorado Media and Capital and Media House Capital and initially will be presented at international film festivals before it is broadly distributed. For more information visit www.doradomedia.com.