Angelina Jolie recently underwent a double mastectomy after genetic tests determined the actress faced a high probability of developing breast cancer.
The Girl, Interrupted Oscar-winner revealed the news in a New York Times column published Tuesday titled “My Medical Choice,” saying that she wanted to avoid the same fate as her mother, who died at age 56 after battling the ovarian cancer for nearly a decade.
“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made,” Jolie wrote in the essay. “My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”
The 37-year-old actress has six children, and said they have sometimes asked whether she might also end up with the illness that took their grandmother, Marcheline Bertrand, in 2007. “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,” Jolie wrote.
“Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could,” she added. “I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.”
Astoundingly, one of the most watched human beings on the planet was able to keep her treatment completely secret through three months of surgeries, despite being followed by paparazzi seemingly everywhere she goes. Her voluntary revelation now could raise an astronomical amount of awareness – potentially saving the lives others unfamiliar with this kind of testing or preventative measure.
In her column, Jolie said she decided to open up about it “because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.”
She said a prime concern is helping middle- and lower-income people. “The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.”
And coming from a celebrity often ranked as one of the most beautiful women in the world, Jolie could have a profound supportive influence on those facing similar treatment – since one of the most agonizing parts of the decision is what it will do to the patient’s appearance and sense of self.
She acknowledged those potential psychological effects in her op-ed. “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman,” she wrote. “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Jolie credited her partner, Brad Pitt, for helping her through the arduous series of procedures, which began on Feb. 2 and ended on April 27. ”So to anyone who has a wife or girlfriend going through this, know that you are a very important part of the transition,” Jolie wrote. “Brad was at the Pink Lotus Breast Center, where I was treated, for every minute of the surgeries. We managed to find moments to laugh together. We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has.”
She said her regimen will eventually be made public and posted on the Web site of the Pink Lotus Breast Center, but Jolie also delved into fairly specific detail in her essay, describing the so-called “nipple delay” procedure designed to save that part of the body, the later surgery to remove her breast tissue, and the subsequent reconstruction.
“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,” she said. “Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.”
Though her children still ask questions, Jolie says the answers now are more reassuring: “They know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.”
Her reps had no immediate further comment.
Jolie’s next screen role will be as the title character in Disney’s live-action Maleficient, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the villain. It’s set to open in July 2014.
The actress who made her directorial debut with the 2011 Bosnian War drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, is also planning to direct her second feature. This would be an adaptation of Lauren Hillebrand’s best-selling non-fiction book Unbroken, about a former Olympian who was captured by the Japanese Navy while serving as an Air Force pilot in World War II.
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