Monday, March 30, 2015

Angelina Jolie, Cancer, & Me

It came as a shock to everyone when Angelina Jolie penned that first op-ed piece for the New York Times in 2013 about undergoing a double mastectomy as a preventive measure for breast cancer. Jolie, who lost her own mother to breast cancer at 56, was told that she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer two years ago because she carries the “faulty” gene, BRCA1. 

“I wanted to write this [op-ed],” Jolie wrote in May 2013, “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.”
The article sparked debates everywhere on whether a double mastectomy was the best option. Even among my circle of friends, I heard people talking about how it was a form of mutilation to do that procedure to a healthy woman’s body. So, imagine everyone’s surprise on March 24th when Angelina Jolie wrote another op-ed to say that she’d recently had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed after her doctor discovered a number of inflammatory markers that could be a sign of early cancer.  At 39 year old, this Hollywood sex symbol is now going through forced menopause.

I found myself relating—perhaps too uncomfortably—to Jolie’s situation. My family has a history of breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer, not unlike Jolie who lost not only her mother but her aunt and grandmother as well. An entire generation of women in my family was wiped out by these cancers—my grandmother of ovarian cancer at 77, her older sister of cervical cancer at 51, her younger sister of breast cancer at 66, one of her cousins to breast cancer, and another cousin to ovarian cancer. My mother’s cousin, too, died of breast cancer at 34. These types of cancers are a preoccupation of mine, not only because of my health, but because of my mother and little sister’s. Our risk of developing cancer is high with such a family history. I've already—perhaps prematurely—been giving myself self-breast exams in the shower for years and making sure to go for annuals with my gynecologist without fail. My apologies if that's TMI.

But each time Angelina Jolie has written one of these articles, I’ve wondered what I would’ve done in her position. If I’d been given Jolie’s odds for breast cancer, I think I would’ve done the same thing as her. The 87 percent risk is stacked too heavily in cancer’s favor. I’d feel like each of my breasts was a ticking time bomb waiting to decimate my life and my family’s. I have a more difficult time deciding whether I’d have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, but I do understand why Jolie made the decision, and I have a deep respect for her for having the courage to do so.

By having these surgeries though, Jolie has—in the minds of some—sacrificed her womanhood, her sexuality. Many women tie up their sexuality and woman-ness with their breasts (big or small; pert or saggy) and their ability to have children. Jolie has disproved that theory with grace. At 39, Jolie will now go through menopause and can “expect some physical changes,” but she’s not looking toward this next chapter of her life with fear or regret. Angelina Jolie is at peace with her decision because she sees it as just another part of life, and she is happy that her children will never have to say that their mother died of breast or ovarian cancer. Because of Jolie’s strength, her six children will most likely never have to see their mother battle cancer or experience that kind of loss.

I think that Angelina Jolie’s bravery extends further thanks to her public acknowledgment of her surgeries. She has empowered women like me who often feel powerless in the face of cancer. Will I get it? Won’t I get it? Will treatment work? Won’t it? Will I still be the woman I was after my breasts have been removed, disfigured, or I’m unable to bear children? Jolie has taken a subject that is usually spoken about in hushed tones among family members and made it a topic of discussion among the general public. She’s let women know that it is possible to test for these inherited gene mutations and then take action, although she makes it clear that her course of action isn’t for everyone. I don’t even know if it’d be right for me, but at least I’m now aware of my choices if I find myself in a similar predicament.  

My mother, thankfully and miraculously, tested negative for the BRCA1 gene a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not still at risk. We are. But for now, I will continue my breast exams, my annual check-ups, and try to live a healthy lifestyle in hopes that that’ll be enough in my case.

I’ve spent the last week flip-flopping over whether or not to write this post. Would it seem opportunistic? Was it too personal? I don’t know what it was that finally made me sit down and write, but I do think that, at least for me, it was good to put everything down on paper.  In writing this post too, my mother and I once again had that difficult talk, and I learned about two relatives who died from cancer that I didn't even know about. So, thank you, Angelina Jolie, for making people talk about breast and ovarian cancer without shame or fear.

Photo Credit: Femme 217 by Aja at SagittariusGallery.

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