Preventative Mastectomy: Angelina Jolie's Very Public Choice

BlogHer Original Post

Faced with an 87-percent chance of getting breast cancer due to carrying the BRCA1 gene, Angelina Jolie chose to undergo a double mastectomy, she revealed in an op-ed published yesterday in the New York Times.

Angelina Jolie

Credit Image: © Hubert Boesl/DPA/ZUMAPRESS.com

She wrote:

"Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.

"On April 27, I finished the three months of medical procedures that the mastectomies involved. During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work."

Jolie's mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died from breast cancer at the age of 56. Jolie says she speaks with her children often about their grandmother and their worry that she could contract the same disease. Knowing this was possible, along with a 50-percent chance of ovarian cancer also caused by BRCA1, Jolie opted for the double mastectomy as a first line of defense against breast cancer:

"I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer."

Countless commenters have called her brave for sharing her story, particularly given her celebrity and renown for her personal appearance. Women like Jackie have shared how her coming forward with her story of choosing to have a bilateral mastectomy has touched her, as she chose the same procedure after losing her own mother to breast cancer. Others, like BlogHer member Patricia, share stories of their own search for medical answers, that did not lead to similarly clear conclusions.

Some have discussed her wealth -- and the access to the expensive test that can indicate the presence of this gene plus the surgeries and after-care needed -- that it gives her. Jolie herself notes that she wishes for parity in access to health care, unsurprising from a person who has dedicated a portion of her life's work to shedding light on conditions for women and children living in precarious situations around the world.

Discussions of wealth and celebrity and health care parity are relevant, yes. And no woman's story is the same. The physical, emotional, and financial resources are vastly different, along with the information we have about our bodies and the appropriateness of treatment for each human being. But when I read this story late last night, all I could think about was the power of a voice of a woman who had made a difficult, intensely personal, choice. It surprised me that I was surprised that she'd done it, because after all, I don't know her at all.

And then, upon reflection, I wasn't surprised. Until faced with discovering these kinds of frightening odds in our own lives, how do we know what we would do? And in making that choice, and choosing in the immediate aftermath to share it with the world through an immense platform like Jolie's? The Angelina Jolie of the legs and the boobs and the Brad and the bunch of kids and everything only a cursory glance could possibly show?

And knowing people would listen because she has that kind of clout?

It's a lot to take on. I'm leaving "brave" for the others, but I'll say for sure that it's a strong choice on top of a challenging, probably scary, but what for her was obviously correct one.

Her piece itself is called "My Medical Choice," in fact. And in sharing her experience with the world in very plain, specific, personal language, it's safe to say the awareness she'll expand of an aspect of a dreadful disease that affects many women, and many families, and many mothers, will be great.

I'm calling that a really good, strong thing to do. What about you?

Contributing Editor Laurie White lives online at LaurieMedia and @lauriewrites.

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