In The New York Times two years ago, Angelina Jolie wrote an essay about her double mastectomy, a courageous procedure that removed both of her breasts to reduce her risk of cancer.
Back then, health campaigners praised her decision to go public with the news and to encourage others to get gene-tested. Her surgery reduced her risk of breast cancer to less than 5 percent and the publicity attached to it meant that referrals for genetic testing doubled in the UK, potentially saving many more lives. At the time, she wrote:
"I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer [...] It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that's it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can."
The actress has six children, three adopted and three with Brad Pitt.
Back then, she claimed that she may have to undergo more surgery at some point in the future, and Angelina has now published a brave and heart-felt article that follows up with more health news.
"I wanted other women at risk to know about the options. I promised to follow up with any information that could be useful, including about my next preventive surgery, the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes."
A long battle with a faulty BRCA1 gene
Angelina inherited the BRCA1 gene from her mother, who passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 56. The gene, which runs in the family and has already affected 3 women before her, places Angelina at a high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
In her essay, Angelina spoke of these statistics:
"It gave me an estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. I lost my mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer."
Two weeks ago, Angelina received worrying news
Receiving a call from her doctor two weeks ago, she was informed that a recent test result had shown potential early cancer.
The procedure, which the actress has every year to monitor for ovarian cancer, revealed a number of inflammatory signs. However, after going in to see a surgeon that also treated her mother, she bravely said:
“Nothing in the examination or ultrasound was concerning. I was relieved that if it was cancer, it was most likely in the early stages. If it was somewhere else in my body, I would know in five days. I passed those five days in a haze, attending my children’s soccer game, and working to stay calm and focused.”
A chance of early stage cancer
While her scan appeared to be clear and the tumor test was negative, Angelina was aware that there was still a chance of cancer. She writes:
“I was full of happiness, although the radioactive tracer meant I couldn’t hug my children [...] There was still a chance of early stage cancer, but that was minor compared with a full-blown tumor. To my relief, I still had the option of removing my ovaries and fallopian tubes and I chose to do it.”
Last week she underwent a procedure called laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy with the doctors finding "a small benign tumor on one ovary, but no signs of cancer in any of the tissues."
Impossible to fully remove the risk
Despite doing all she possibly can, Angelina acknowledges that she will always remain prone to cancer. Yet, she is determined to live her life to the fullest:
"I will look for natural ways to strengthen my immune system. I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family. I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’.”
"I feel at ease with whatever will come"
For a woman in the public eye and under the constant glare of the paparazzi, I greatly commend Angelina for openly discussing her major surgery and the changes her body is going through. In the self-penned article, her final words turn to the future:
"I am now in menopause. I will not be able to have any more children, and I expect some physical changes. But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared.”
The onset of early menopause is one of the side-effects of the surgery.
A feminist victory?
In a society in which prejudice about menopause and passing femininity is rife, it is incredibly courageous for her to admit that she is experiencing these stages so early in life.
Indeed, back in 2013, Angelina reassured many going through the same experience, saying:
“I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."
With this, she showed that you can be a normal woman with breasts, and a normal woman without breasts. The same goes for her ovaries.
In a glamour-enveloped world, women are often required to be beautiful and unchanging, especially in the cut-throat entertainment business. Yet, Angelina has highlighted that it is possible to be just as influential and powerful in the face of hormonal change. The discussion about body image and the experience of the menopause has been one of the most positive effects of her surgery.
Angelina has cast a welcome light on a stigmatized issue
In her determination to speak out, she has indirectly also saved others' lives. Not only have we learned more about the crippling disease, but she has also reiterated that women with a potentially volatile genealogical make-up also have options and should get regular check-ups.
Nancy Brinker, a founder of a cancer prevention organization, claims that Jolie's essays cast a welcome new light on a subject that is often stigmatized.:
"It would not have been the norm for someone of Angelina’s stature to come out and talk about having this disease, having preventive surgery like this [...] It’s a real testimony to her and to the journey we’ve all gone in the last 30 years.”
Indeed, we would should all praise Angelina for her bravery, her determination and her ability to face her fears. Ultimately, she has shown that there is life beyond cancer and her decision to speak out is a definitive step towards engagement in a much-needed debate.