We’re talking about actress Angelina Jolie again.With her stunning announcement about the bi-lateral mastectomy she chose to endure because of the BRCA gene mutation in her family, she opened herself up to criticism. Unfortunately, she didn’t have to wait long before it came. Would it have been better had she remained silent? I say no. A resounding NO.
Unless we’re living on the Starship Enterprise, surgical procedures leave behind their reminders. Ever have an appendectomy? The scar stays with you for life. Ever give birth by Ceasarian section or have a traditional hysterectomy? The scars remain across your abdomen forever; leaving you without sensation there.. And if you’ve had something more dramatic…say, an amputation of some kind…then yes, the more extensive collateral damage will stick around, too. It’s to be expected. Surgery is not for sissies.
In a very informative and well written article by Roni Rabin in the New York Times last Tuesday, (5/20/13), mention was made of breast surgeons’ concerns for the public. They feared that people might misinterpret Angelina Jolie’s surgical experience as their own.That it was a quick and easy procedure. Specifically, they were concerned about the nine weeks Ms. Jolie said it took her to complete her reconstructive surgeries. For most patients, for the average patient, it takes longer than that–upwards of a year–to say the procedures are over. And there are often complications which Ms. Jolie didn’t speak about. Hmm…if she didn’t have any, why would she bring it up?
I am an average breast cancer patient. I am not what is called a previvor as Ms. Jolie is. My last surgery is a year-and-a-half behind me. I still feel the effects, and they are common, of a bi-lateral mastectomy. The tightness across my chest, the random shooting pains, the aches from stretching, and the unhappiness with that hard circle of scar tissue around the failed implant. Yes, a failed implant. Been there, done that, too. I am not Angelina Jolie. But I don’t fault her for telling her personal story in the way it happened for her. I applaud her for sharing her experience with us.
Some might point a finger and say she had access to doctors extraordinaire. Well, I did, too–in the Houston Medical Center which is second to none in this country. Some might mention her access to research. I was blessed with many doctor friends who provided me with the best intel around.
The truth is that sometimes stuff happens. Unintended consequences. Collateral damage. Unforeseen circumstances. Call it what you will. Physicians try to be prepared for anything, But often, a patient’s body reacts in a way that even the very best of doctors don’t and can’t foresee.
I respect the surgeons’ concern for their patients as discussed in the article by Roni Rubin. I know their intentions are good. They wanted to warn the public that this procedure is not as easy as it might have appeared when Ms. Jolie revealed her story. I’d like to remind the good doctors, however, that they don’t have to worry. They are the ones in charge of their patients’ care. Educating patients is their job. Analyzing the risks and benefits for each person is their job. Explaining that these surgeries aren’t a “breeze” is their job.Discussing each viable option is their job. Helping patients make decisions is not the job of a celebrity.
In my humble–or not so humble–opinion, Angelina Jolie has saved lives. We won’t ever know how many. But you can’t argue with the number of women who are now asking questions about the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations. The phone lines at FORCE, an organization specializing in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, were ringing non-stop after Ms. Jolie’s announcement. Women were taking note about their own family’s pattern of cancer. About their own chances of finding a cancerous tumor in their breasts or on their ovaries. And they wanted more information.
Education about a painful subject is a slow process. Who wants to think about cancer? Who wants to admit they could be at risk? It’s a scary proposition. So the word goes out and is sometimes not heard. Not at first. But it will. The more people who speak up like Angelina Jolie did, the sooner knowledge will resonate. And then.,..just watch the hereditary cancer death rate drop.
Isn’t that the goal?
Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered or FORCE, is the only foundation in the country that focuses only on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. They provide support for women at risk and for members of families in which the risk is present. I’m proud to support its mission.
For more information, go to: www.facingourrisk.org
I welcome all opinions! So if you’d like to continue this conversation, please leave a comment below.
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As always, thanks so much for stopping by. I hope to see you for the next edition of Starting Over.