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Does Jolie’s Mastectomy Send the Right Message?

Heather Langone May 14, 2013

Angelina Goes Public with Her Double Mastectomy

The biggest healthcare right now is Angelina Jolie’s courageous step to go public with her decision to have a double mastectomy after discovering that she carried the BRCA1 gene. She not only went public but she wrote an Op-Ed piece for the NY Times about her experience. Jolie’s own mother of course–it has been widely publicized how much she idolized Marcheline Brand—died of ovarian cancer at 56. Faced with the prospect of repeating that same fate, Jolie chose to think of her children and make a very bold decision. She said in the Times piece when referring to how she explains the absence of her own mother to her children:

We often speak of “Mommy’s mommy,” and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.

After writing a thorough description of the operative and post-op experience, she goes on to say:

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.

Jolie’s Decision: Not a One-Size-Fits-All

While no one would deny that her decision  both to be proactive and to go public, is indeed brave, the concern is that when a celebrity speaks out about the “benefits” of anything, many people jump on board simply because a movie star said it was great. So it must be. And, in fairness some people are saying, that’s exactly why her published article is so important. Because many women will get tested for the gene and take their own proactive step toward better health. But the question is: will women without the BRCA1 marker and a history of female cancers, jump to this step out of fear?  Jolie says she came out publicly because for so many women, “Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts.”  So in her opinion this demystifies the process allowing women to take their power back. But will it also have the opposite effect for some?

No one in the media seems to be addressing this side. People, particularly women think Jolie is essentially the perfect woman–the most beautiful, most wealthy, married to the best looking man and so on. So what does it say if this perfect woman, with access to the best healthcare decides that her best and/or only alternative is to premptively remove her breasts before getting Cancer. Yes, of course it is proactive. There is no dispute about that. But it was her individual decision. This may not be the right decision for everyone. It may not be covered by all insurance carriers and the reconstruction may not be as good depending on the hospital. Shouldn’t both sides be presented when addressing such a serious healthcare issue? And, quite frankly, she has the luxury of be able to take time to recover and she has exorbitant funds and childcare help. Does every woman have this benefit? One worries that in some cases this may cause a bit of panic and a rush in some cases to make a decision that should be highly personal and not be considered a fix for every woman. Can we at least talk about that before we just praise Jolie as if this is the answer for all woman? It was her answer. It was her choice and it should be noted that she had access to all the best options to make the right decision for her.

What do we tell the woman in Detroit who finds out she has the gene marker but  doesn’t have the money or the insurance? What do we tell her: Good luck it’s only a matter of time?  We need to be more careful when putting celebrities on a pedestal when it comes to healthcare decisions. It’s not a one size fits all. But we are all responsible for each other and for the information we diseminate.

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