In shocking news this week, top actress Angelina Jolie announced that she has gone through a double mastectomy as a preventative measure against breast cancer. Angelina lost her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, to the disease in 2007, and doctors have told her that she carries the same gene, which makes her high risk. The mutation of the BRCA1 gene gave her an 87% chance of breast cancer, along with a 50% chance of ovarian cancer. And those were not odds that the mother-of-six was prepared to bet on.
The surgery took three months overall, and included reconstructive surgery. Fiancee Brad Pitt was with her throughout the ordeal and she said they found “moments to laugh” in the midst of it all. Her breast cancer risk has now dropped to under 5%.
Angelina’s not alone in taking preventative measures. Christina Applegate also had a mastectomy in 2008, as she carried the same gene mutation. Talking about it to Oprah Winfrey, she said she has taken “a very progressive stance in the rest of my life” but also that it was a “grieving process and a mourning process.” Her attitude illustrates the double-edged sword of preventative surgery – a bilateral mastectomy isn’t a decision that any woman takes lightly, but it can be a life-saving decision. Modern reconstructive techniques are excellent and there’s no loss of femininity as a result, to the outside world at least.
Of course, reconstructive surgery isn’t essential. One woman – Kelly Davidson of Ottawa – chose to have a massive tattoo where her breasts used to be, with fairies in woodland. Asked why she decided not to have implants, she said “there’s more to me than breasts.” Her brave decision is an inspiration to cancer survivors everywhere.
The sad thing about the surgery that Angelina underwent is that it’s not an option for everyone. Or at least diagnosis isn’t. Testing for the BRCA1 gene costs more than $3,000 and that just can’t be spared by most people. So the chance to know about and plan for your breast cancer risk is the preserve of the wealthy. There’s something wrong about that.
Still, it’s laudable that Angelina has gone public about her surgery, as it may enco0urage other women to find out more about their family history and assess the risks for themselves. As Jolie says; “”I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.”
One of the many terrifying and horrible aspects of cancer is that it seems to strike randomly and takes away the patient’s choice and power. By having surgery before cancer even has a toehold, Angelina has taken that power back and, in the words of Kelly Davidson, “kicked cancer’s ass”. And that is an amazing thing to do.