When Angelina Jolie made the decision to have her breasts removed two years ago after testing positive for the BRCA genes that cause breast and ovarian cancer, everyone said she was brave. And she was. But for those of us who also have a family history of the disease, she was so much more than just that.
Today, in an editorial for the New York Times, Angelina reveals that she has had yet another surgery. This time, she has had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. It’s no small thing. And it’s incredibly bold, especially for a person who has yet to be diagnosed. But as those of us with a family history know, waiting too long will be too late.
Jolie’s BRCA1 mutation meant that over her lifetime, she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. She lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer.
Jolie says in her editorial:
It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.
Exactly. The surgery is no small thing. Jolie will now be in menopause, which means all the symptoms that come along with that even though she’s only in her late 30’s. And, of course, it means no more children. But for those of us who have a high risk of these diseases, it seems small compared to what they can do. We have seen it firsthand.
I lost my own mother to breast cancer when she was only 45. She went from trekking in the Andes to being unable to climb the stairs in a matter of months. Her decline was rapid and horrible, bringing with it blindness in one eye, near-constant pain in her bones, and the inability to eat anything due to the chemo-induced mouth sores.
She died when I was 16 and my sister was seven. She missed our high school graduations, my wedding, the birth of all three of my children, and countless other milestones and events in our lives as well as in her own. She should have been there.
So when I think of the trade-offs, I’d gladly give my breasts and ovaries away to be promised longevity and the chance to cuddle my grandchildren. Sadly, I won’t get that chance. Three years ago, I tested negative for the BRCA. Even though my grandmother, mother, and maternal aunt have all had breast cancer. Testing negative may seem like a good thing (and it is), but it could (and probably does) mean that my family has some other kind of genetic mutation. A kind that has yet to be identified. I wish I could be proactive. For now, I do the best I can. I started early mammograms. I visit my doctor twice a year. I do rigorous self-exams. But it’s always there in the back of my head. I know it could happen. And I know what it could do.
Those of us in this horrible club understand just how brave Jolie is to shine a light here. No one would say what she has done is easy. It’s not. The surgeries are grueling and painful and not small at all. But if she makes a few women who are high risk take a deep breath and ask their doctors about testing, then she could very well be saving their lives.
We don’t have any guarantees in life. I could walk out of my house and get hit by a bus tomorrow. But I owe it to my kids to minimize every risk and give them every shot of having a mother long into their adult years. I know exactly why Jolie has done this. I applaud her. I thank her. And I hope that her editorial and courage in sharing her story encourages others to do the same.
Let’s all be brave like Jolie.
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