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Angelina Jolie's Double Mastectomy Will Save Women's Lives

Friday, May 17, 2013 | 0 Comment(s)


I awoke a few days ago to the news story that Angelina Jolie had decided proactively to undergo a double mastectomy due to the knowledge that she carried the “cancer gene” BRCA1. It is with no hesitancy that I tell you my first reaction to this news was “who cares.”  I am not one for celebrity idolization, and I’ve found that for every Bill Gates trying to eradicate disease, there seems to be a Jenny McCarthy urging the public toward re-infection with campaigns advocating against childhood immunizations for potentially life-threatening diseases.  Obtuse would be a vast understatement. 

So I read Jolie’s piece in the New York Times. Her logic seemed sound.  Her mother died at 56 from cancer, and after taking a blood test, she learned that she too carried this cancer gene.  With her chances of developing breast cancer being evaluated as higher that her chances of avoiding it, Mrs. Jolie made the incredibly difficult decision to go ahead and remove the potentially offensive breast tissue ahead of time. 

In the face of such a rational argument, I was now left thinking, “What Jolie did is either ├╝ber Hollywood crazy or groundbreakingly brave and courageous.” The truth is, while I may be over-educated, I am not a cancer expert.  I had no way of evaluating this woman’s life decision in a scientific, reasoned manner.  My guess is, you don’t either.  Thankfully, my father just happens to be an oncologist who has been practicing medicine for almost 40 years.  So, I send him a text.

Dad.  Angelina Jolie got a preventative double mastectomy.  My question to you is whether her decision was smart or crazy, in your medical opinion.

His response:  It was very smart, since she apparently tested positive for the breast cancer gene!!! (his emphasis added) Her ovaries need to go next . . .

My father’s response changed everything for me.  Everything.  I believe Jolie is getting her ovaries removed as a next step to her process.  What’s more, now I knew that all of this invasive preventative medicine was based in fact, and seeing as I didn’t know this information until now, I realized that this was important potentially life-saving information that until two days ago lacked any public voice.  If I grew up with an oncologist and I wasn’t informed about the odds for contracting cancer based on the presence of genetic markers, how many thousands, millions, of women were in the same boat as me. 

Which is why Jolie’s decision to publicize her decision will save lives.  Forget the bravery it takes to get any piece of your body removed.  Forget that this woman’s body has been fetishized, glorified, and commodified since she was 14-years-old. Forget that her choice shows a clear and laudable example of Jolie prioritizing her kids, family, and health above her fame and adulation (are you taking notes Kardashians?). And forget that this surgery is absolutely none of the general public’s business. 

Actually, don’t forget that.  Remember that this whole medical scenario that is playing out for Hollywood’s super couple is the very definition of a personal matter.  It is a miracle of science, but for those with enough money, you can now go through this procedure (plus the breast reconstruction) without the general public realizing it at all.  So Jolie had the option to keep this matter private.  It’s easy to see the appeal of keeping this all quiet when you imagine yourself going through all of the doctor consults, the repeated medical procedures, and the physically draining recovery.

Angelina Jolie’s choice to make her personal struggle a public issue is quite possibly the single most important humanitarian action of her fairly illustrious career (no sarcasm).  It is easily her most important contribution domestically.   She has not only taken the reins of her of life path, she has become a new type of model for America: A role model. 

I’m not saying you should start wearing a vile of your hubby’s blood around your neck or to try to find hidden treasure in a tank top, short shorts, and wearing a pair of 9mm pistols.  What I am saying is that Jolie has made the conscious choice to connect her name and fame to the testing and proactive prevention of breast and ovarian cancer in the same way Magic Johnson more unwittingly became the face of HIV back in the early 90’s.   And I realize that it’s not a perfect comparison, but, in terms of raising positive awareness for what can be terrify process, and then additionally illustrating how people can proactively take control of their own healthcare decisions, I think it holds up.  

Because, the fact remains, that getting a piece of your body removed is always scary as hell.  And, the very idea of getting cut open when you don’t even have a disease is too large a psychological barrier for many people to push past.   Even with a 75% chance of contracting the disease (the percentages are different for every individual), many women will still choose to forego the trouble, pain, and life-adjustment that surgery requires.  And I don’t blame them.  I know as well as anyone that surgery can be scary as hell.  (Have I mentioned that surgery scares me?)

But what we are learning now, or at least I am learning now, is that avoiding surgery is not the smart decision if living as long as possible is one of your goals.  (I realize that factors like age and a desire to have children are major mitigating factors here as well.)  That said, these surgeries reduce the chances of developing breast and ovarian cancer down to single-digit percentages.  That’s down from 65 - 80 percent.  And while a 60%-40% chance of developing cancer may feel like a dice roll to some people, a 97% chance of no cancer must feel like an ice-cream scoop full of heaven.

My father doesn’t get what all the fuss is about.  He views Jolie’s decision as simply the “correct” choice given our current medical knowledge.  However, I can’t help shake the presence of her bravery in using her platform as a famous sex symbol to publicly walk through the cloaked tunnel of double mastectomy, and then to spread her knowledge on the process, recovery, and positive outcomes with the general public.  She will undoubtedly come to mind when future women are placed in the same position, or used by doctors to help explain a diagnosis that is part blood test, part genetics, and part statistics.   Because no matter what the numbers say, getting your breasts removed is always a leap of faith. 

Angelia Jolie has simply helped light the ground on the other side. 

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