Recently, actress, director and activist Angelina Jolie has had the nation talking about difficult decisions and breast cancer when she revealed that she recently underwent a preventive double mastectomy. Her beloved mother, Marcheline Bertrand, lost her decade-long battle with breast cancer when she was just 56. Now, another family member has succumbed to the disease – Jolie’s aunt, Debbie Martin.
Angelina is an Oscar winner who has certainly played some strong roles onscreen, including the lead character in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider series and an assassin in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but she’s also a mother of six. In “My Medical Choice,” the op-ed piece she wrote for the New York Times, Angelina explained, “We often speak of ‘Mommy’s mommy,’ and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.”
A simple but expensive blood test ($3,000) revealed the faulty gene to Angelina. Doctors estimated that Jolie had an 87% chance of breast cancer and 50% chance of ovarian cancer, though she advises these numbers are different for each woman. Angelina, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, kept a low profile as she was going through the three-month process to complete the double mastectomy at the Pink Lotus Breast Center.
She said the decision to share her story was based on her own scary diagnosis, “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”
After the death of her mother, her aunt and her own previous high probability of breast cancer, it is no surprise that Jolie, known for being outspoken and tough, is talking about her journey. Hopefully she keeps talking. Angelina admits the expensive blood testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2 is inaccessible to a vast majority of women. As a generous philanthropist and long time activist regarding refugee issues around the world, Angelina, along with Pitt, have lent their time and sizable financial resources to many causes over the years. Maybe helping low to moderate income women gain access to this crucial blood test will be her next mission.
“It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment,” she writes, “whatever their means and background, wherever they live.”