Take Your Health into Your Own hands
Rita Papazian
Norwalk Citizen-News
May 23, 2013

What is it about Angelina Jolie that turns me off? Is it the vial of blood that she wore around her neck when she was married to Billie Bob Thornton? Is it the thin tattooed shoulders that peek out from her satiny sleeveless dresses? Or, is it that in-your-face pose she struck at the Academy Awards when she thrust out her leg through the hip-high slit in her gown? Maybe it’s the ease with which she and her partner Brad Pitt seem to float through airports with their six young children in tow. It’s amazing how we never see the entourage that must accompany this globe-trotting family.

Now, Jolie has decided to announce to the world through an op-ed piece in The New York Times that she has undergone a double mastectomy and reconstruction to reduce the chances of her getting cancer, the disease that took her own mother’s life. Her mother died of ovarian cancer at age 56 in 2007. Jolie wrote in the Times that she carries “a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.” Prior to her surgery she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. Her chances of getting breast cancer have now been reduced to 5 percent. 

In her article, Jolie states that she is going public with her surgery as a way to encourage other women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer “to seek out the information and medical experts” in order to make “informed choices” for their own medical care. She says that many women may not know that they are living “under the shadow of cancer” and therefore, may choose, as she did, to get gene tested and subsequently the double mastectomy. Recent comment in the media has been mixed following Jolie’s public announcement of her double mastectomy and reconstruction.

Some people commend Jolie for coming forward, especially since she has been so admired for her “natural” beauty. They feel she is now a role model for women to take a pro-active role in their own medical care. Others criticize Jolie. For, while she can afford the gene testing and the best medical care, including surgery and reconstruction and have the money to hire people to assist in childcare and other family responsibilities, her financial situation is far different than the average woman . 

As Time magazine noted in this week’s cover story on Jolie, people tend to observe what the famous do and then do the same. The article pointed out that the BRCA1 gene that spurred Jolie into action “is present only 0.24 percent of the population and accounts for no more than 10 percent of all cases of breast cancer. Also, the urge to follow in the footsteps of the famous can lead to unwarranted surgeries. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, told Time that “we have overemphasized and scared people too much.”

A New Jersey kindergarten teacher, whose mother died of breast cancer at 51, told the New York Post that women like her do not have the options that Jolie has. This woman doubts that she can afford the high quality surgeries that Jolie can afford or that her insurance company would pay for the reconstruction. Getting regular exams is the best options for her right now, she says.

Norwalk resident Nina Marino, clinical director for the Breast Cancer Survivor Center, based in Fairfield County, agrees that it is important for women to know their options. Marino, who has survived breast cancer twice, says no matter a woman’s circumstances, it is important that she find good doctors who take the time to explain the “whys” of their recommendations.

I just don’t understand why Jolie had to go public with her own personal medical history and story when other women’s chances of carrying the gene and deciding to have a double mastectomy as a preventive measure against cancer is so remote. But she has gone public and if there is some common good in all of this, it is that may be women will be more proactive in taking preventive, not invasive, measures in dealing with their own personal medical history and circumstances.

Sometimes, celebrities, who too often complain about the spotlight turned on their personal lives, should turn off the spotlight that they, themselves, shine on their personal lives.

As columnist Jennifer Graham wrote in the Boston Globe this week, “Jolie’s surgery, whatever its motivation, is an extreme action performed by a woman prone to extreme.”

© Copyright 2013 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.