When Angelina Jolie chose to go public with the difficult and very personal decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy, could she have guessed how profound a role she was scripting for herself at the center of breast cancer discourse?
The bravery of her decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy cannot be underestimated. It is a medical choice that far too many women must face due to genes inherited from our parents, like the color of our eyes and the texture of our hair. And, just as Ms. Jolie did, it is a choice that must be made based on what is right for them — as mothers, as daughters, as sisters, as women in general, but most importantly, as patients with individual medical histories and personal preferences.
In reading her thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times, I could not help but think about Ms. Jolie’s ubiquitous Lara Croft character. When the film came out, no female actress could have been more perfectly cast — both her real and imaginary selves at once embodying the adventurer, the warrior, the intellectual, the athlete and, undeniably, the sex symbol. That one woman could at once possess so many characteristics seemingly at odds with one another has been one of Ms. Jolie’s most defining qualities.
Today, in a somewhat unexpected and dramatic debut, Ms. Jolie has stepped out in what may become known as one of her most defining roles. Today, she is the “everywoman” who, after weighing the possibility of a future breast cancer diagnosis, took the bold and controversial decision to remove her breasts as a preventive measure.
We know that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. And 10% of those breast cancer cases are associated with an inherited genetic mutation, such as BRCA1, of which Ms. Jolie is a carrier. The fact is, everyone possesses the BRCA gene. Unfortunately, however, in some families, that gene mutates, moving the affected women from the “less likely to develop breast cancer” category into the “most likely to develop breast cancer” category. In Angelina Jolie’s case, she knew that her risk was greatly increased due to carrying the BRCA1 mutation, and so she bravely opted, in true Lara Croft fashion, to rewrite her future.
Ultimately, the decision was hers and hers alone to make. However, thanks to advances in research that have vastly increased our understanding of genes and breast cancer (much of which is made possible by The Breast Cancer Research Foundation), women now have at their fingertips more information, better equipping them to assess their personal risk and determine which options are available to them. And thanks to the voices of women like Angelina Jolie, more women facing similar dilemmas can know that they are not alone in facing the complex choices that impact long-term health.
I applaud Ms. Jolie for her courageous decision and her straightforward statement. At the same time, I urge readers to do their part in supporting breast cancer research. Why? Because there is still much to be learned with regard to “cancer genes,” such as BRCA1, BRCA2 and many others, and the more we understand why these genes mutate and in whom, the more knowledge women — and their doctors — will have at their disposal to make the right medical choices for themselves. As our organization’s founder, Evelyn Lauder, liked to say, “Knowledge is power.” It could not be more true today.
President, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation
For more information on the inherited susceptibility to breast cancer, go to: http://www.bcrfcure.org/action_topics_cause_genetics.html