Was Angelina Jolie ‘Medically Hexed?’

In this New York Times article, A-list actress Angelina Jolie bravely announced that she made the tough decision to undergo elective bilateral mastectomy after her doctors warned her that she has an 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of getting ovarian cancer because her mother died of breast cancer and she carries the BRCA1 gene. While I fully support Angelina’s right to write The Prescription for herself, and while I admire her courage to go public with what some might hide, as an OB/GYN physician with a passion for mind-body medicine, this breaking news concerns me for a variety of reasons.

The Nocebo Effect

In Chapter 2 of Mind Over Medicine, I share the scientific data about “the nocebo effect,” the opposite of the placebo effect, when we think something will harm our health – and it does. In one case study, a man was misdiagnosed with cancer and told he would only live 3 months. He died exactly 3 months later and was found to have no cancer on autopsy.

In another case study that is the stuff of fairy tales, a woman born on Friday the 13th in the Okefenokee Swamp near the Georgia-Florida border was one of three girls delivered that day by a midwife, who proclaimed that all three girls, born on such a fateful day, were hexed. The first, she announced, would die before her 16th birthday.  The second would not survive her 21st. And the patient in question was told she would die before her 23rd birthday.

As it turns out, the first two girls died within one day of their 16th and 21st birthdays. The third woman, terrified that she would die on her 23rd birthday, showed up at the hospital the day before her birthday, hyperventilating.  Soon afterwards, just before she turned 23, she died, proving the midwife’s predictions correct. This is an extreme example of the nocebo effect, when fear-based thoughts about your health can actually kill you.

“Medical Hexing”

In his book Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Andrew Weil argues that physicians may unwittingly engage in what he calls “medical hexing.” When we pronounce patients with “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal” illnesses, we may be programming their subconscious minds with negative beliefs and activating stress responses that do more harm than good. What proof do we have that they will not be one of the case studies who winds up in the Spontaneous Remission Project, having been cured of a so-called “incurable” illness?

By labeling a patient with a negative prognosis and robbing a patient of the hope that cure might be possible, we may ultimately prove the poor prognosis we have bestowed upon our patient correct. Wouldn’t we be better off offering hope and triggering the mind to release health-inducing chemicals intended to aid the body’s self-repair mechanisms?

Is it really healthy for any of us to know that we might have an 87% risk of any illness? Do we really want to poison our minds with such fear-based thoughts that then force us to make decisions about whether or not we will electively cut off perfectly healthy body parts?

The Slippery Slope of Elective Surgery

Once we start surgically removing healthy body parts, it’s a slippery slope. Should we cut out appendixes and gallbladders in babies, since appendicitis and gallbladder disease can kill you? Should we cut out uteri and ovaries after childbearing, since all they’re doing is waiting to get cancer? Should we cut off all moles because some could become melanomas?

When We Live In Fear, We Predispose Ourselves To Illness

To live in fear of what might happen only triggers stress responses in the body. And as I teach in Mind Over Medicine, the body has natural self-repair mechanisms that can kill cancer cells, fight infection, repair broken proteins, and retard aging. But they ONLY work if the nervous system is relaxed. When the amygdala in your primal lizard brain is threatened – as it would be if anyone told you that you have an 87% risk of getting cancer – your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are going to deactivate. And when this happens, you’re at risk not only of breast cancer, but of other illnesses.

The Risks of Genetic Testing

Should Angelina Jolie have undergone BRCA testing? There’s no simple answer to this. Angelina Jolie might carry the breast cancer gene, but that in no way guarantees that she will get breast cancer. While the presence of the BRCA gene – and her family history of breast cancer – may statistically put her at an 87% risk of breast cancer, there is no way to know whether she will be one of the 87% who get sick or one of the 13% who remain healthy. But what we do know from the scientific literature is this – what you believe about your health is likely to come true.

Your body is your business, and you are the guardian of your mind, so it’s your responsibility to be careful what kinds of thoughts you put into your brain.

We Are Not Victims Of Our Genes

Epigenetic research proves to us that environmental influences, including hormonal factors that are affected by your thoughts, beliefs, and feeling, affect how your genes express themselves.

Your genetic code is like a blueprint that can be interpreted in millions of different ways. Before the Human Genome Project, biologists assumed that we would have at least 120,000 genes, one gene for every protein made in the body. We now know that each of those 25,000 genes can express itself in at least 30,000 ways via regulatory proteins that are influenced by environmental signals. Studies have even shown that environmental factors can override certain genetic mutations, effectively changing how the DNA is expressed. These altered genes can even be passed down to offspring, allowing the offspring to express healthier characteristics, even though they still carry the genetic mutation.

Few diseases result from a single gene mutation. Less than two percent of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, and beta thalassemia, result from a single faulty gene, and only about 5% of cancer patients can attribute their diseases to heredity.  Scientists are now learning that the genome is far more responsive to the environment of the cell – especially the hormonal environment created by our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings – than we once thought. (Yes, how you think can change how your DNA expresses itself!)

The study of epigenetic control is revolutionizing how the medical community thinks about genes. We used to think that some people were blessed with “good genes,” while others were cursed with what some in the medical community insensitively refer to as “piss poor protoplasm.” But we need not be victims of our DNA.

BRCA Testing

Angelina Jolie might be a BRCA1 carrier, but that doesn’t mean she need be a victim of her genes either. She may feel she has made an empowering choice to be proactive about breast cancer prevention – and more power to her. I respect and honor her body wisdom and intuition and greatly admire her willingness to speak her truth.

But I worry that other women with family histories of breast cancer will now rush out to get BRCA testing, and if they test positive, they will follow her lead and undergo potentially unnecessary and possibly dangerous elective surgery. I sincerely hope others think twice before undergoing genetic testing that will put them in the difficult position of having to choose between their breasts and their peace of mind.

But as always, I know that you know your body better than any doctor does – and only you can know what’s right for you.

What Do You Think?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

You can now download your FREE Self-Healing Kit, which includes a guided self-healing meditation I recorded with musician Karen Drucker, the 10 Secrets To Healing Yourself e-book, the Diagnosis Journal, a Prescription Pad, and other goodies at MindOverMedicineBook.com.

Lissa Rankin, MD: Creator of the health and wellness communities LissaRankin.com and OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.

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S James
Susan James4 years ago

Thank you! I’m a fan of the Jolie-Pitts for a variety of reasons but was saddened by Jolie's announcement, and stunned by the words of praise - "brave" and "amazing"! It’s the rare celebrity who can make such a public announcement and for that Jolie has my respect. I also trust she genuinely believes her surgery was appropriate based on the information she had. However, as this article points out, genetics "predispose" us – they are not absolute guarantees - and a multitude of healthy, holistic preventive measures exists against diseases, including those to which humans are genetically predisposed. I would have thought the worldly and seemingly well-informed Jolie would have chosen a far less invasive course of prevention. It simply makes good sense to do everything possible before considering radical surgery and then, having the surgery only if necessary. Even with an absolute guarantee of disease, wouldn’t one want to hold on to body parts for as long as they are still healthy? Lastly, a woman's breasts are a beautiful, symbolically important aspect of her female form and being. To remove perfectly healthy breasts based on possibility of future disease, makes me wonder … might there perhaps be more deeply rooted issues at play; issues having nothing to do with physical "dis - ease"?

Julia Manglano
Julia Manglano4 years ago

I am really interested in how we can change our genetic predispositions by the choices we make on a daily basis, about our emotions, our thoughts and our way of life. That would be something to work on for our future as a community, the human community.
I appreciate that doctors, or some at least, are working and open to the effect we ourselves can have on our own health, and the responsability that implies.
I agree we cannot take out any part of our body that could be damaged by cancer in the future, cause that would be the same as creating havoc "just in case" something happens to us, instead of wondering what exactly am I doing to create that disease? or maybe choose to live in a way that does not create the same reality that my mother, grandmother, etc, had. Choose real change.

Woodhouse Removal

I loved the post

Kim Kimm
Kim Kimm4 years ago

Yeah...... Something to think about..... I might have my appendix removed (to prevent appendicitis...)
I could get lung cancer, so I better have my lungs removed too....
I definitely don't want to get a heart attack, so I'll have my heart removed for prevention......
What if I get in to an accident and loose an arm or a leg....? Maybe I'll have them removed as well.......

What about BRAIN removal....... I wonder if there are some 'celebrities' who don't have any.....?

Star S.4 years ago

Lisa I agree with your article completely - we are discovering in biology everyday more and more evidence that we are not a slave to our genes and that our thoughts are paramount for our health. I am a believer of this and have seen it to be true at least with repsect to my person,

Luisa Barr
Luisa Bar4 years ago

Sorry to say this but i dont believe what Jolie did, i think that all this story is nothing but mediatic. When was the last time Angelina was seen in public events? Is it there enough time to recover and at the same time get beautiful enough to carry a cleavage??? I remember that the Brangelina couple went to my country invited to see a new museum the thing is that there was a very nice table with many dips and snacks all made by chefs but something unexpected happened the couple never took a bite instead they went out to smoke. Lol of course cigarrte keeps u in shape while food harms the perfect anorexic image that they both have in real life. Hope Angelina that u stop smoking and that u reach ur healthy weight remember that cigarrte also increase the risk of any cáncer and anorexy is very bad for inmunologic system. And please do good films dont turn ur life into a soap,

Trish Kerbel
Trish Kerbel4 years ago

I absolutely agree with this intelligent wellresearched article. As someone who has a chronic illness (multiple sclerosis) I know all about "medical hexing" and have experienced both it and “the nocebo effect” myself. I believe that no one knows more about their problem than the patient themselves and they should be completely involved in managing their condition. All the specialists made the direst predictions as "I have the most agressive form of this incurable & degenerative disease" and am therefore doomed. Five years ago I stopped consulting neurologists and I better than I have ever bee. I am no longer progressing and have none of the extreme pain and spasticity that the speciaists could not/would not help me with. I am still active and able to live a full life. Remember most specialists are "educated" by the drug companies. DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH MANAGE YOUR OWN HEALTH, IT IS YOUR LIFE

Svetlana B.
Svetlana B4 years ago

Thanks for sharing. All the best to Angelina.

Anna Undebeck
Anna Undebeck4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

B Jackson
BJ J4 years ago

Interesting theories & as many opinions - no need for another from me.