Angelina's message

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It's natural to take celebrity endorsements with a grain of salt. Why are they doing this? Are they sincere or is this just an image boost?

And then there's Angelina Jolie.

The award-winning actress revealed shocking personal news through an op-ed piece Tuesday in the New York Times.

Jolie has undergone a double mastectomy after learning she had a gene that made her highly susceptible to breast cancer.

"I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy," Jolie wrote. "But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 per cent to under 5 per cent. I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer."

The actress described the whole experience in Technicolor. Her goal, she said, was to encourage other women who may be facing the same choice - or who may not yet know they are at risk.

"For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options. I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices."

Jolie's revelation raises a couple of key issues. First, she addresses the overwhelming burden women go through facing breast surgery. For most, it can seem like a neutering, an attack on their sexual identity, which can lead to serious depression.

"On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman," Jolie assures. "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."

More importantly, though, her news puts a high-profile face on a relatively new phenomenon stemming from modern genetics: preventive surgery.

It's hard enough to convince people they need to undergo radical surgery in order to remove tumours. It's another to convince them before they even have cancer.

It's particularly relevant in Newfoundland, which has the highest rate of mastectomy in the country.

And breast cancer is not the only risk.

Last November, members of the Ennis family in Newfoundland gathered in Mount Pearl to celebrate their decision to have their stomachs removed to lower their cancer risk.

The Ennises are among only 100 families worldwide who've been found to carry a mutation of a gene called CDH1. Since 2005, at least 40 members of the Ennis line have had the surgery.

Meanwhile, even celebrities understand the importance of family. Like anyone facing a medical crisis, Jolie found strength in her husband and children.

"Brad (Pitt) 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."

Organizations: New York Times, Pink Lotus Breast Center

Geographic location: Technicolor, Newfoundland, Mount Pearl

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  • Virginia Waters
    May 16, 2013 - 10:16

    'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out' - I have never liked Mathew 5:29. To me it reeks more of the harshness of Mohammed than the compassion of Jesus. I have always assumed that even in the New Testament, the people writing it down in short-hand probably made a few mistakes. I don't condemn Jolie's decision. It is a highly personal one and her's alone to make. But I do worry that the manner of its presentation to the world carries with it a risk that others will be persuaded inappropriately, unnecessarily to follow in her footsteps. I'm not sure the coverage made sufficiently clear that her circumstance - the BRCA1 genetic mutation - is quite rare. It occurs mostly in women of European Jewish descent. The mutation accounts for only 5% to 10% of all breast cancers in women. That said, the risks for those women with the mutation are quite real and measurable. Women generally have an 84% chance of living to age 70 or more, whereas those with the mutation have only a 53% chance. Surgery isn't a complete guarantee against the disease, and there are alternative measures that can lower the risks. It is hard to know what you would do in her place until you are in her place. The question is whether preventative surgery has any real role in preventative health. What is clear is that we need to accelerate the development of genetic engineering solutions to problems of this nature.

  • David L. Russell
    May 15, 2013 - 12:24

    It's difficult to imagine anyone undertaking these procedures for the sake of publicity. Let's give Angelina a break on this.