I was literally blown away by Angelina Jolie’s op-ed piece that ran in the New York Times and I applaud her in every possible way. I have an entirely new level of respect for this woman and I am so impressed by her courage, but mostly, I thought the language, emotion and honesty with which she described her path was intelligent, thoughtful and sound.
I identified with almost every part of her story. First, she cited accurate medical facts surrounding genetic testing for breast cancer and BRCA mutations, not hoopla. She made a thoughtful choice that took into account her life, her own health, her children, and her husband. It’s entirely my opinion, but she will save more lives from breast cancer by writing this one piece than most of us will ever do in our lifetimes collectively by raising awareness and bringing this discussion to the forefront. If an actress, who is gorgeous, known for her humanitarian efforts, for her looks, her body and many other things, can choose a prophylactic mastectomy at 36, then women all over the world can too.
I became very interested in this subject several years ago for a personal reason. Someone close to me has a strong family history of breast (and ovarian and prostate) cancers. She lost her mother to the disease at a very young age, her father had cancer, and her only sibling had cancer as a child. I gave her the book Pretty is What Changes by Jessica Queller, a courageous memoir about the author’s very personal quest and decision to have a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for a BRCA genetic mutation.
Like Angelina Jolie, she was a positive carrier of the gene mutation that makes breast cancer or ovarian cancer a likely possibility over her life time. Like Angelina Jolie, she was young and pretty when she found out. She also lost a vibrant loving mother to originally breast, and then ovarian, cancer. The big difference was one that I identified with the most, “What do you do with this information when you are not married to Brad Pitt with six children?” Even though I was negative for the mutations, I was young and single and didn’t have a family yet. It’s a different choice for someone who is married and has children already to remove their breasts and potentially ovaries as well.
When I took my friend to have genetic counseling and testing, we left without her having the genetic testing. I am not sure what happened in the room where I waited as she left me to get the test. Did someone tell her she didn’t need it? Did she get scared of the results? I do know someone told her erroneously that she might be blackballed from insurance. In the end, she declined to get the information. I felt so strongly that she should be watched closer and that she should know the results to improve her medical outcome, not necessarily by having a double mastectomy, but by having information to make a choice. It was such a reminder to me that every breast cancer choice is a personal one, and not mine to make — exactly Jolie’s point when she names her thoughtful piece.
I swallowed the lump in my throat when Jolie said that her kids ask about Mommy’s Mommy. My father died of cancer and it was horrible. I have evolved over the years in how I talk to my daughter about it. Originally, I told her I had a “boo boo” and they were going to take it out and I would be back from the hospital soon. Later, she would ask me little things that broke my heart, like why my breast looked different than hers, or many times in the bathtub together, if I could feel her tickle me there, along my breast.
I don’t like to lie to her and I don’t know why this was the most difficult omission for me of all. One time, when she was five, she said, “Mommy, someday will I get breast cancer too?” I always wanted her to know I had cancer so she could see for herself that it wasn’t a death sentence — that you can survive and thrive, and that life goes on for many (most) of those diagnosed early. But when she asks me if I will die of breast cancer, I just cannot bring myself to tell her something I cannot promise. I always say, “I hope not” or “I don’t think so.” I never say no. What do you tell your children when they ask you if you are going to die from breast cancer.