Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie shared the story of her preventative double mastectomy, a decision she made after discovering she carries a gene that gives her an extremely high risk of developing breast cancer, in a New York Times op-ed published on Tuesday. Her public announcement coincided with National Women’s Health Week, a government initiative to encourage U.S. women to better safeguard their health and seek out preventative care. In Jolie’s editorial, she explains that she hopes other women might benefit from learning about her experience.
Jolie is one of the few woman who carries a rare gene mutation, BRCA1, that predisposes her to breast and ovarian cancers. While the average woman has about a 12 percent risk of developing breast cancer at some point in her life, those with a BRCA1 mutation have an average 65 percent risk. After Jolie underwent the blood testing that revealed her own genetic mutation, her doctors estimated that she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
The actress — whose own mother passed away from cancer — wrote that she decided to take preventative measures with her own six children in mind. “Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could,” Jolie writes. She shares step-by-step details about the mastectomy procedure and recovery process in her op-ed.
“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,” Jolie explains. She notes that although the word “cancer” still tends to strike fear into people’s hearts, and often produces “a deep sense of powerlessness,” she wants other women to know that they have options. And she also hopes to communicate that the health issues that impact women’s anatomy — even breasts, which have become somewhat of a cultural signifier for femininity — don’t serve to diminish womanhood. “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,” Jolie notes.
“It’s a very empowering message that women are not helpless when faced with a genetic cancer risk,” Dr. Peter Johnson, the chief clinician at Cancer Research U.K., told the Associated Press in reference to the actress’ public announcement. But Johnson also noted that Jolie’s personal story is a relatively rare one. Most breast cancer cases don’t result from BRCA mutations. In the U.S., it’s estimated that about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to harmful versions of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Obviously, the women who have different breast cancer stories may opt for different types of treatment, and a full mastectomy may not be right for every individual.
But regardless of the broader implications of the individual case, there is value in public figures choosing to share details about their own health experiences. In 1974, when Betty Ford candidly spoke about her own experience with breast cancer, it was perhaps the first time that the disease was discussed openly. Women’s health advocates agree that Ford’s decision to share her story helped bring breast cancer out of the shadows and into the national conversation. In the immediate aftermath of the former First Lady’s announcement, there was a recorded increase in women asking their doctors for breast cancer screenings. Since then, a growing number of other celebrities have spoken publicly about their own breast cancer diagnoses.
Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in U.S. women. It’s also one of the deadliest. It’s estimated that about 232,00 women will contract breast cancer in 2013, and 39,620 will die from the disease. Fortunately, preventative screenings for breast cancer are covered under Obamacare, which helps ensure that most women can access those gender-specific health services without being charged a co-pay.