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Angelina Jolie Pens Moving Essay About Losing Her Mom to Cancer — & the Need to Treat Women With More Than Medicine

It’s time for change — that’s the message behind a moving essay written by Angelina Jolie about her mother’s breast cancer, and why there’s a need on a systemic level for a more comprehensive approach to treatment. Advances in medicine are wonderful, yes. But, emphasizes Jolie, addressing the issues that affect a woman’s health is just as important and all too often overlooked.

In 2007, Jolie’s mother Marcheline Bertrand passed away at the age of 56 following a valiant fight against breast cancer. It was in the wake of those undoubtedly difficult days that Jolie began the journey ultimately leading to her 2013 double mastectomy and, later, having her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. “As I stood in the hallway of the hospital waiting for my mother’s body to be collected and taken to be cremated, her doctor told me she had promised my mother that she would make sure I was informed about my medical options,” Jolie recalled. “Years later, I was able to have a genetic test that revealed I carried a gene, the so-called BRCA1, that predisposes me to cancer. The test came too late for the other women in my family.”

Jolie is alluding to not only her mother but also her grandmother. She explained, “My mother fought the disease for a decade and made it into her 50s. My grandmother died in her 40s. I’m hoping my choices allow me to live a bit longer.”

Although the surgeries she had may seem radical to some, it wasn’t a difficult decision for Jolie given her family history and the results of her genetic testing — while women typically have a 13 percent risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime, Jolie had an estimated 87 percent risk of developing the disease (along with a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer).

And so, she did what she needed to do in order to be present for her family. “I simply feel I made choices to improve my odds of being here to see my children grow into adults, and of meeting my grandchildren. My hope is to give as many years as I can to their lives, and to be here for them. I have lived over a decade now without a mom. She met only a few of her grandchildren and was often too sick to play with them. It’s hard now for me to consider anything in this life divinely guided when I think of how much their lives would have benefited from time with her and the protection of her love and grace,” Jolie wrote.

However, Jolie’s purpose in penning the emotional essay wasn’t just to honor her mother. She’s also pushing for change — for a better understanding of how the complex and often relentless pressure women face can drastically affect the outcome of their health and treatment. “What I’ve come to understand, as I’ve reflected on my own experiences and those of others I’ve met, is that while we should continue to push for advancement, care is not just about medical treatments,” she said. “It’s also about the safety, dignity and support afforded to women, whether they’re battling cancer or trying to manage other stressful situations. And far too often they’re not given nearly enough.”

If we only treat the cancer or specific illness, we’re missing a much bigger part of the picture: the stresses that could be undermining a woman’s wellbeing in the first place. Which is why Jolie concluded her letter with a plea to be gentler, more empathetic, more proactive. She wrote, “All medical discoveries that extend our lives are welcome. But the bodies we are hoping to heal also need to be respected and spared preventable harm. Only if we feel safe and cared for are any of us able to reach our full potential.”

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