Angelina Jolie is a world famous figure. I’ve seen her in countless movies such as, the iconic Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Salt, The Tourist, Girl Interrupted, The Bone Collector and Mr and Mrs Smith, to name just a few. I’ve been incredibly impressed with her body of work. However, I have never had much knowledge of Jolie herself. Of course, here in the UK, we get the news from Hollywood, which is filtered down into our gossip columns, but usually it is just that- gossip, and contains no information of any substance. The information we receive is about the public persona of ‘Angelina Jolie’ the film star, and her relationship with Brad Pitt, which everyone seems to have an opinion on. So any ‘news’ we receive usually comes with a side-line of opinion, that is cleverly presented as fact. The real Angelina Jolie, I would come to realise, is remarkably different.
Recently, she has made headlines for her brave choice to have a preventative double mastectomy, which she underwent due to having an increased risk of developing breast cancer. She wrote a letter that was published in the New York Times on the 14th May, called ‘My Medical Choice’. In this article she very openly, discusses the process of how she came to make her informed decision and what happened afterwards. She had been greatly influenced by that fact that her Mother sadly died, at the age of 59, after having a long battle with the disease. Jolie had been incredibly saddened that she only got to see her first Grandchild, Maddox. Marcheline Bertrand, Jolie’s Mother, never got to meet her subsequent Grandchildren Zahara, Shiloh, Pax , and Jolie’s twins, Knox and Vivienne. Jolie is said to talk to her children about ‘Mommy’s Mommy’, and has said that it obviously hurts her deeply, that they will never get to meet her.
Each person carries a gene, the BRCA (BReast CAncer) gene, that protects them from ever developing breast cancer, but if this gene is faulty then the risk is greatly increased.
“BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors.” says the National Cancer Institute.
But some families carry mutated or broken BRCA genes that can be passed down from one generation to the next. Approximately 5-10% of all breast cancers and 14% of ovarian cancers occur from a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation that is inherited from either parent. Because of Jolie’s family history of Breast Cancer, she chose to be tested to see if she had the faulty BRCA gene. Unfortunately, she was found to have the faulty gene. Jolie said that when her children ask whether she will die as the same thing as their Grandmother, she would say, ‘they need not worry’, but in truth there was an 87% chance that she would develop breast cancer.
In the article she explains what happened when she found out the results;
“Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy.”
Jolie has since undergone three operations, and as a result she has gone from having an 87% risk of breast cancer to having a lower than 5% risk. I was astonished that such a personal choice would be made so public. The nature of her industry is so aesthetically obsessed that surely the public knowledge of her bold choice, could possibly prove to be detrimental to her career? Yet despite this, she very publicly explained what she has done, ‘for the benefit of others’.
This seems like one of the most selfless acts possible. Her decision to make this public, was so intriguing to me, I just didn’t expect it from her. I had never known anything about Jolie as a person, and just knew about her from what I’d read in the gossip columns. How trivial, and small minded that seems now. The more I learn about Jolie, the more admiration and sheer respect I have for her. I have since learned about her incredible work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which she started after learning of their work during the filming of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Jolie became ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ for the UNHCR in 2001. After a decade of work with them she was promoted to ‘Special Envoy of High Commissioner António Guterres’ because of her tremendous work. Her new role allowed her to represent the UNHCR and António Guterres at diplomatic level. She works to get long-term solutions in areas of extreme crisis. She has also become a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for the US, where she has met members of congress at least 20 times. She has also created, or co-created, the following organisations, which help innumerable amounts of people; Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, Jolie-Pitt Foundation, Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, Kids in Need of Defense, and the Jolie Legal Fellows Programme. Jolie has been recognised with awards many times over for her incredible work for humanity, most of which is unheard of in the press (in the UK at least!)!
Her honesty and eagerness to help others who find themselves in the same medical situation, is a lot less surprising, after hearing about her awe-inspiring, acts of charity. Her preventative treatments all took place at the Pink Lotus Breast Centre in Beverly Hills. She describes the surgeries in the article and she explains that the first operation, that took place on the 2nd February this year, was;
‘ a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.’
The next operation occurred two weeks later and took eight hours, where the breast tissue was removed and temporary fillers are put in place. She explains how it felt at the time;
“You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.”
The last operation took place nine weeks later, when she had reconstruction surgery. In her words she says that her children;
“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.”
Hopefully many people will be reassured by that, if they are facing the decision but are worried about the overall aesthetic of the chest area post-operatively.
Obviously, there is the issue of one’s femininity to think about, but having breasts does not equal femininity. That is one thing, which we as a society need to understand. If it did, all these men who have so-called ‘moobs’ (man-boobs) many of whom have a larger cup size than myself, would be considered to be more feminine than me. Clearly, that isn’t the case, and Jolie touches on the subject in her article;
“On a personal note, 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.”
Hopefully, the women that read Jolie’s article will be inspired to follow in her example, and together we can work towards a world of true gender equality, because unfortunately we are not there yet , by any means. We can share in that same sense of empowerment that Jolie talks of, by making strong choices, not just medically, but in other areas of our lives too. We can learn from her experience, particularly from a poignant statement Jolie made at the end of her article;
‘Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of,’ a quote that personally, will be staying with me forever!
On a very sad note yesterday, Sunday 26th May, just two weeks after this article was published, Jolie’s Aunt, Debbie Martin passed away after battling with breast cancer herself. Debbie Martin was Jolie’s late Mother’s sister, and Debbie’s husband has said that, both sisters had possessed the faulty BRCA-1 gene that Jolie has inherited. Speaking to E News he said;
“Angelina has been in touch throughout the week and her brother Jamie has been with us, giving his support day by day.”
When asked by Associated Press about his thoughts on Jolie’s preventative action he said;
“Had we known, we certainly would have done exactly what Angelina did.”
I believe this unfortunate event has only gone to fortify Jolie’s actions. This is the harsh reality of cancer, and reiterates how important it is to get checked for the faulty gene especially if there is a family history of breast cancer. My thoughts are with the family and friends of Debbie Martin.
In summation, I would like to say how brave Angelina Jolie has been in the light of these circumstances. There will be many women inspired by her bravery and her honesty, which will have saved many lives in the future. Angelina’s beautiful words will inspire, encourage, and hopefully empower women to make an informed choice, instead of living in fear. Angelina is an ambassador for all women, and I for one want to thank her for her contribution to women-kind and the world as a whole. Please if you are a woman reading this, follow the link to a Breast Cancer website which will show you how to check for any possible lumps in the breasts. It is so important we face up to this disease and this is the first step!
See more information about the charities Angelina supports here:
Feature Image Credit : Getty Images