Angelina Jolie, BRCA1 carrier, shares about her double mastectomy

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Angelina Jolie is perhaps best known for her acting and directing, her husband Brad Pitt, her work with the UN, and her seemingly endless number of children. Some would say she is known best for her sex appeal – after all, she forever changed the glamor of a simple tank top in her role as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and who could forget how her role in Mr. and Mrs. Smith eventually led to Brad Pitt leaving his Girl Next Door? I personally have never been a huge fan of Angelina’s. Her tattoos scare me. Her sex appeal is too overwhelming. She seems too wild for my taste. But today, as a future physician and as a woman, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Ms Jolie.

In her Op-Ed today in NYT titled “My Medical Choice” , Angelina shares her experience choosing to have prophylactic bilateral mastectomy (surgery to remove both breasts) to reduce her chance of breast cancer. Angelina is a BRCA1 mutation carrier, which means she has an alteration in one of her genes that increases her risk of developing cancer of the breast and ovaries to 65%. She saw breast cancer kill her mother at age 56, and she did not want to go the same way. Her piece details how she wanted to take matters into her own hands, and instead of living in the fear of what will come, she chose to reduce her chance of breast cancer to <5% by removing both of them in advance.

The piece touches on so many important issues – the ethics of getting tested for the BRCA1/2 gene mutation, how to cope with the mutation, what to expect from the surgeries. What really gets me, however, is how she uses this very private experience to inspire women around the world. Her feminine figure no doubt has played a major role in her success, and for someone who has benefited from sex appeal catapulting her career, the decision to remove her breasts could not have been an easy one. She could have also kept this entire experience under wraps. Health to many people is a personal matter, but she chose to use her story to encourage others to explore their options when faced with the same decisions she was. For that, I applaud her. She writes,

“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. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”

I have known individuals who are afraid to get tested. They don’t want to know their risks and they can’t imagine facing the reality and the fear of cancer. Some have told me they don’t want to spend their lives waiting for something to happen. But as someone in the medical field, I have always wanted to urge them to think about their options to eliminate that fear and be prepared for anything. By being well informed, they can choose life. I hope that with this testimonial, Angelina Jolie will show women around the world that they can take ownership of something they thought they had no control over – their genes.

For more information about BRCA1/2 and breast cancer:

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/BRCA

http://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/InheritedGeneticMutations.html

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