Hold off on the Halo for Angelina Jolie, Please!
I’m not knocking Angelina Jolie, even if she’s beautiful, dizzyingly famous and apparently soon to be married to Brad Pitt. The thigh-thrusting performance at last year’s Oscars, as well as other questionable antics, don’t cancel out her humanitarian work with refugees or her role in setting up nonprofits that serve children in trouble spots of the developing world.
Recently Jolie wrote an op-ed for the New York Times stating that she’d undergone a double mastectomy and reconstruction of her breasts after discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene, which she says signals an 87 percent risk of her developing breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer.
Jolie’s decision was a reasonable one, according to most oncologists, although not the no-brainer some people might think, given that breast cancer is often successfully treated without mastectomy.
‘Truly the most beautiful woman in the world’
But if I can’t fault Jolie, I can fault the sycophantic fluff that has followed her announcement. To give a few nauseating examples: A Swedish artist has tried to convey her “ethereal feminine look in a topless post-mastectomy portrait,” according to E online; actor David Krumholtz has tweeted, “now Angelina Jolie truly is the most beautiful woman in the world;” the New York Daily News editorialized her decision as “gut-wrenching;” and a Beverly Hills surgery center that performs breast reconstruction has described her story as “heartbreaking and courageous.”
Actually Jolie’s decision is neither more nor less “courageous” than those BRCA mutation carriers who decline prophylactic mastectomy and decide to check for disease with regular MRIs and mammograms; or those who undergo “chemoprevention” with tamoxifen — other reasonable options, according to oncologists. As for “heartbreaking,” the Beverly Hills surgery center needs to visit the young patients at the pediatric brain tumor unit of our hospital to witness the true definition of that word.
Perhaps what’s most troublesome about these gushing tributes is they’re amping up public attention to a cancer that has already fallen prey to “overawareness,” leading to women opting for mastectomy even if they have ductal carcinoma in situ, a stage zero cancer.
Any headway Jolie has made in helping cancer patients pales in comparison to the admissions of other lesser-known women of Hollywood. When the late Dana Reeve, the widow of “Superman” Christopher Reeve, told the world she had lung cancer, she bolstered the profile of the nation’s #1 cancer killer of men and women, and revealed a potent message. Yes, nonsmokers get lung cancer, too. Similarly Farrah Fawcett, as well known as Jolie back in the day, destigmatized anal cancer when she shared her experience of the disease that claimed her life in the documentary “Farrah’s Story.”
Breast cancer patients not necessarily the winners
While Jolie’s decision will probably ease her own psychological burden — something that she says has weighed heavily on her since her mother’s cancer death at 56 — the real winners of her revelation might not be women at high risk of breast cancer. Myriad Genetics, the company that developed the $3,000 test for the BRCA1 and 2 genes saw its shares climb by 4 percent just one day after the publication of Jolie’s op-ed.
One more thing: I lost my 12-year-old to a brain tumor, the #1 cancer killer in children, a disease that’s decades behind in both the scientific understanding and treatment developments of many adult cancers. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Myriad or another molecular diagnostic company developed a blood test that identified newborns at high risk of developing pediatric brain tumor? That way, at-risk children could be scanned at frequent intervals and treated while the disease was at its earliest, most curative stage. That never happened in Natasha’s brief lifetime. And it’s highly improbable it will happen during the lifetime of those children who will be diagnosed with malignant brain tumors for many years or decades to come — if ever. Now that’s “gut-wrenching” and “heartbreaking.”