Our newest spokesperson: Angelina Jolie

Thanks to my friend Marie at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer for the heads-up on a noteworthy event in the breast cancer world: Angelina Jolie’s preventative bilateral mastectomy.

Yes, you read that right: Angelina Jolie had a preventative bilateral mastectomy. She spoke out on her choice in this New York Times piece. I’ve read it twice and know that I will return to it again and again. Not because she’s a celebrity (frankly, I don’t get our societal obsession with celebs; if anyone can find anything remotely interesting about Kim Kardashian besides her unfortunate maternity wardrobe, please drop me a line. I just don’t get it.).

But I digress.

I will likely return to Jolie’s article because she’s articulate and well-informed about this nasty beast called cancer. She’s proactive, which ladies and gentlemen is what makes or breaks your fight against this damned disease. She advocates for a person’s right to choose the medical care that’s right for them. True, she has money and resources unknown to most people, but her message still stands.

Normally when a celeb comes out with a revelation about cancer — particularly breast cancer — the world takes notice because it’s happening to a celebrity. We get all atwitter about the person rather than the disease and the many ways in which it affects them. It becomes about the celebrity instead of about the cancer. In the case of a celeb with breast cancer, I cringe along with my pink-ribbon sisters when that celeb boasts of having “caught it early” and even worse, waxes poetic about how exciting it is to get “new boobs.” (Exhibit A: Giuliana Rancic. I threw up in my mouth more than once while reading her account of her cancer experience and wonder if she really believes the crapola she shoveled.) Newsflash: “new” does not correlate to “better.”

Jolie writes of losing her mother to cancer at age 56, and how the disease stole from her own kids “the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.” I get that. My favorite girl was 3 when my mom died, and she has few real memories of her YaYa. There are plenty of stories that have been recounted to form memories, but nothing tangible. mom's funeral

That, my friends, is a tragedy.

Jolie says she tried to explain to her children the disease that took “mommy’s mommy” and that they wondered if the same thing could happen to her. The scariest thing about my own diagnosis was explaining to my kids that YaYa’s cancer — which they watched her die from — was very different from my cancer.

But is it really?

Yes, the particulars are different — ovarian vs breast, stage II vs metastatic — but to a child, what’s the real difference here? It’s an amorphous, scary monster that snatches away the people they love.

Jolie says that “cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness.” The best way to combat that powerless feeling is to do something about it. Jolie underwent the BRCA analysis, which tells us if we carry a gene that makes us more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer.  Her results: an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 50 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.

She goes on to say, “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

For someone in her business, and as someone who is celebrated for her body as much–if not more–than for her charity work, that’s big.

So is the empowerment Jolie speaks of: “For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options. 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.”

Make your own informed choices.

The majority of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease. That’s one of the many ways this stealthy beast sneaks up on us and takes over our lives. People like Angelina Jolie are helping to change this. She says, “I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.”

Living under the shadow of cancer.

Those words will stay with me as I read and re-read her piece.

I expect Jolie to bring her considerable influence to addressing the fact that the cost of the BRCA test (upwards of $3,000) precludes many women from undergoing the test. The test is not always covered under insurance, and the insurance companies will squawk about it being unnecessary if there’s no family history of the diseases. But as Jolie says, that should not stop us from trying. Often it’s as simple as having the prescribing doctor contact the insurance company to assert the need for the test.

Jolie ends her article with this: “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”



11 Comments on “Our newest spokesperson: Angelina Jolie”

  1. David Benbow says:

    Every time I see that picture of the cousins at YaYa’s funeral, it just breaks my heart. Your mother was a joyful, vibrant and nurturing woman and it’s a tragedy that your kids don’t get to share in her warmth.

  2. Christy says:

    I read that article right before bed last night and of course, thought of you. I applaud her decide to have the surgery and I applaud how she handled it. Kept it quiet until it was all over as to not put the focus on her, but on the cancer and subsequent decision that quite possibly saved her life and hopefully the lives of others. Not just another attention grabbing celebrity. She comes across as just regular, young woman taking charge of her body and life. Love that!!

  3. Rancic makes me throw up and not just in my mouth. I dislike Jolie very much, but will grumpily admire this decision. Still ambivalent about the whole proactive being the only way to beat the disease thing. Control in cancer is a tricky issue for me.

  4. It was a very well-written piece, I agree. She didn’t go into the gene patenting issue, but then it wasn’t really the place or time for that discussion. I really like the last line you quoted from her article. It’s the helplessness that terrifes me, but taking some action and control – that’s a very good thing and a very good feeling too. ~Catherine

  5. mmr says:

    I’m torn as, once again, a celebrity comes out with this. Like you, I hate the bobble-headed silliness of Rancic, and Jolie is far more thoughtful about it. I remember seeing Christina Applegate being interviewed around the same time I was going through MX diagnosis. Although she tried to appear upbeat and strong, there was a very truthful sadness in her voice, demeaner, and mostly her eyes. I just read that Jolie’s surgery took 3 months to complete and she did something called a nipple delay. I had never heard of this procedure, but now I know. Bet you had never heard of it either. My friend who just had MX end of January never heard of it. I think you can guess what that particular surgery does (perhaps some feeling will stay that you, me, and my friend– and every other average woman before us– will probably never get back sans miracles). So why weren’t we told about it, and why didn’t we have it offered to us? Because we’re not celebrities? Believe me, I would have paid for it if I’d had any idea of the possible difference. Sorry, guess it’s my turn to rant. I should start my own rant blog, right?

  6. jbaird says:

    Great post, Nancy. As I mentioned in a comment on Marie’s blog, sometimes the decision to opt for the preventative route is not in our hands, or we don’t feel it is. A partner may not agree, and this can cause terrible stress. Unfortunately, my current life challenge of metastatic disease DOES scare me because I don’t have control over it. Catching it relatively early, or even better, preventing it, is the ultimate goal. But I try not to live from scan to scan, choosing instead to plan the rest of the year as if I will have the energy and fortitude to travel and enjoy milestones, cancer in check. Thanks for the post! xo

  7. Trevor Hicks says:

    I’m often conflicted about breast cancer stories in the news and this is no exception. I read a couple articles over my lunch break, some commenters out there are flat out idiots thinking she did this just to get a “new rack” for vanity. Wow.

    But there is a valid concern about over-preventativeness and over-treatment of breast cancer. In Jolie’s case – 87% chance – it seems pretty obvious she made the right choice. But now I wonder, will the publicity around this motivate other women to suffer unnecessary expense, risk, pain and mutilation for the sake of prevention? Most people aren’t really good at objective cost/benefit computations. Remember Peggy Orenstein’s amazing article in the New York Times Magazine in April. No easy answers.

    I didn’t even touch the issue of wealth and privilege, but we know that’s part of the discussion too and frankly I don’t think there’s obvious answers there either. It’s cost/benefit ratios with an extra helping of moral quandary.

    Nothing about breast cancer is easy, not even reading a story about it.

  8. […] The Pink Underbelly writes Our Newest Spokesperson: Angelina Jolie […]

  9. […] theme is also echoed by Lani in her blog. I strongly urge you to read both. In a thoughtful piece, The Pink Underbelly touches on the “celeb factor” of the story: Normally when a celeb comes out with a […]

  10. […] it again. This most recent conversation coincided with this article in The New York Times following Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she had a prophylactic mastectomy. While Jolie has received a lot of praise, the article says […]

  11. […] her second preventative surgery: to remove her fallopian tubes and ovaries. Just as she did with her prophylactic bilateral mastectomy two years ago, Jolie Pitt writes articulately and openly about her laparoscopic bilateral […]

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