As 37-year-old Jolie writes in the New York Times, her mother died at 56 after fighting cancer for more than a decade. Jolie decided on preventative surgery after learning that she carries the ô’faulty’ gene, BRCA1,” which vastly increases her risk for having breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Doctors had told her that she had an 87 percent of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Jolie chose to be proactive and minimize her risk as much as possible, with a preventative double mastectomy. She details the three months of medical procedures she has been undergoing since February 2, starting with “nipple delay,” then an eight-hour surgery to remove breast tissue, then reconstructive surgery. Her treatment was carried out at theáPink Lotus Breast Center, with her partner, Brad Pitt, present “for every minute of the surgeries.”
As a result of the surgery, Jolie’s chances of developing breast cancer are now less than 5 percent. Noting that “cancer is still a word that strikes fear into peopleĺs hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness,” she stresses how crucial it is to have the gene test foráBRCA1 and BRCA2, especially for women whose families (like my family) have a history of breast cancer and of ovarian cancer. She does note that the testing costs more than $3,000 in the U.S. and therefore “remains an obstacle for many women.”
While writing about highly personal matters, Jolie acknowledges that she is, well, very much in the public eye and, as Hadley Freeman writes in the Guardian, precisely because of the part of her anatomy that she is now without. Jolie is certainly not the first actress or celebrity to have a mastectomy and speak publicly about it; Lynn Redgrave and Kathy Bates have too. But Jolie is a woman whose body has long been “scrutinized by the media”; indeed, the “most personal elements of her life have long been part of the pop-cultural discourse, from her troubled relationship with her difficult father, to her children, to her marriages.”
By writing about “my medical choice,” Jolie has shown not only that she has been able to “take on and take control of” a major challenge to her health, but to be in charge of how this news is presented to the public.
There’s another reason Jolie must be applauded. She does note that there are “many wonderful holistic doctors working on alternatives to surgery” but she herself has made her life-changing, and body-altering, choice based on what some have called “traditional” medicine and science. That is, Jolie has not tried anything experimental, “alternative” or based in pseudoscience. In going public about a major health issue, she hasámade it clear that, yes, we need to take full advantage of what modern medicine and scientific research have to offer us, inástriking contrast to too many celebrities such as the actress Jenny McCarthy who, a few years ago, campaigned actively in support of the unscientific and misguided notion that vaccines could be linked to autism.
Jolie is using her celebrity for, I think it is fair to say, the public good and not only to urge women to undergo testing as early as they might. She has also made a powerful case for science and what it can do, all while emphasizing that having had a double mastectomy means that she does not “feel any less of a woman.” Rather, she writes,
“I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Indeed, Jolie’s decision, made very much with thoughts of her family and certainly of her six children first and foremost, speaks worlds about not only femininity but about motherhood and what it means to be a woman and a human being seeking to have a good and long life surrounded by those she loves.
I am hopeful that Jolie will continue to speak up and advocate for more funding and research for gene tests for breast cancer and for treatment. I am also hopeful that that the cameras will continue to be focused on her, not because she’s a celebrity, but because she has many, many years ahead.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons