“This positively infantile preoccupation with bosoms. In all time in this wretched Godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture: in literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment and everything. I’ll wager you anything you like that if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight.”
– J. Algernon Hawthorne, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”
I woke up this morning not to the news of Benghazi, the murder conviction of Dr. Gosnell or of the AP’s phones being tapped, but rather with the blockbuster headline that Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy. This was the lead story at a time when the media is so jammed with breaking news events it is hard to keep them all straight.
Ms. Jolie wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times to tell of her ordeal. She discovered that she is at an increased risk of developing breast cancer because she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation and that her mother died at a young age from cancer. She could have chosen the “watch and wait” approach of monitoring her breasts until cancer appeared, or she could be proactive with her health and remove as much breast tissue as possible to reduce her risk of breast cancer to five percent. Nothing is 100%. It is impossible to remove every last bit of breast tissue, that is why you hear of women post mastectomy who still get regional recurrences. But a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy is really the best way to even the playing field when you have a family history and carry the gene mutation.
As for her ovaries, that is something else she will have to contend with. That decision is not any easier and the onset of sudden menopause is something to consider.
All of this is not news to those of us on the front lines of breast cancer. If I had known that I would get breast cancer not once, but twice, and have to undergo chemotherapy twice, radiation twice, lumpectomy and all the other other surgeries, I would have made the exact same decision. I never felt so clean and free as I did the day I woke up from my bilateral mastectomy. I felt relief. But I had cancer. Getting it off of me couldn’t have happened fast enough. This article is not even about the science of it or her choices. It is about how her story is being covered.
I listened to male newscasters as I was getting ready this morning and had more male newscasters on the radio as I drove. They were all saying the same thing: Her choice was “drastic!” She is “brave to risk her career in this way!” She is a “beauty symbol, what will happen now?!” What do think will happen now, Champ? She will wake up in the morning (next to Brad Pitt) and climb out of bed and do whatever she does all day: make movies, play with her kids, sulk, laugh, let’s see, am I forgetting something? Oh yes, she will LIVE.
When you think of Angelina Jolie, do you think,”Wow, what great breasts?” No. For me, if I were to think of Angelina Jolie, I think of Brad Pitt, her beautiful face, Brad Pitt, her long flowing hair, Brad Pitt, her enviable figure, Brad Pitt, her acting talent, and, finally, Jennifer Aniston. The press, however, is suddenly making her a freak of nature. The men I heard talking on the airwaves came very close to saying that her career and life were over because she had breast tissue removed. I’ve got news for them: It’s Not About The Breasts. And even if it was, she can expect the very best outcome from her reconstruction because her body has not been ravaged by chemo and radiation and she was able to have a nipple sparing mastectomy. The results are beautiful in her scenario.
Women are made of hearts and souls and intellects and they come packaged in all shapes and sizes. It’s what is inside them that matters. Breasts or no breasts, she is still a woman. The tragedy here is NOT the loss of Angelina Jolie’s breasts. It is the loss of the millions of women who have died from breast cancer. The women who found their tumors too late. The women who found their tumors early and it still killed them. The women with and without the BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation. The moms, the sisters, the lovers, the wives and the daughters who are gone now. I mourn for them. I do not mourn for the surgeries.
I salute Ms. Jolie for bringing this public because she may help other women who are undecided about this procedure. Now, it would be nice if insurance would cover breast reconstruction for women who have prophylactic surgery to save their lives. It would be even nicer if the cost of the BRCA test was not $3,000 and insurance covered it. It would be fantastic if instead of ruminating about an actress’ breasts the world took a look at where we are spending our money and how we can place a predator drone over the bathtub of radical despot and take him out without knocking over his toothbrush, but we cannot seem to find a way to locate a tumor before it kills one of our own.
And so we keep fighting. We have to keep doing what we are doing and monitor ourselves as closely as we can. And if you get breast cancer, you will get through it. And if you have worries about your self image or the side effects from sudden menopause from removing your ovaries, you’ll get through that, too. The No Surrender Breast Cancer Foundation is here for you and so is the book Intimacy After Breast Cancer, Dealing with Your Body, Relationships and Sex. If you have a strong family history or think you may carry the gene mutation, I suggest a visit to FORCE as well.
Let’s shift the focus from Angelina somehow being “diminished” to Angelina being smart and proactive. It can start with you today. When the subject comes up, and it will, and your companions are talking about how “drastic” this was for her and “Oh my what will ever become of her?” Take them to task. It’s about living. She chose to live her life without the shadow of cancer looming over her and preventing her own children from feeling the devastating loss of losing their mom to cancer like she did. I lost a dear friend on Mother’s Day to breast cancer. If she had known what would happen to her, I know she would have done exactly what Angelina did. So tell your friends about Lee and then they will hopefully see the loss of breast tissue is nothing compared to the loss of a woman.