Earlier this month actress Angelina Jolie underwent a major elective surgery, having a preventive double mastectomy when gene therapy revealed that she carries a particular gene that gives her an 87% chance of developing breast cancer. Her mother died of the disease (or ovarian cancer, I forget, but Jolie’s ovaries are next anyway) at only 57 years old.
The public response has been overwhelmingly in support of the actress’s decision, with Hollywood stars and everyday bloggers alike calling her “brave” and “heroic” and praising her “honesty” in having this surgery and then going public about it (what don’t stars go public about anymore is what I want to know).
I had a different reaction when I heard about her surgery. Although I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority with my opinion, Jolie’s situation offers up the perfect case study in why falsely assigning certain motives to famous people and worshiping in the cult of celebrity disconnects regular people from reality and feeds our obsession with everything we aren’t.
Like I said, I’m aware that my opinion isn’t the popular or even common one. How rude, redwhiteandnew. Do you want this woman to get breast cancer? Wouldn’t you do everything you could to prevent such a horrible and often disfiguring disease in yourself and those you love?
I’m not being rude and no, of course I don’t want anyone to have cancer. Been there done that with a tumor scare myself, and I wouldn’t wish it on a snake. And yes, I would do many things to prevent disease in my body and in my family, but I’m just an average everyday person of average everyday means and other things to do on a daily basis. What Jolie did is not reality for the rest of the world and if we don’t pretend like it is, maybe our collective focus will stay on things that make a difference in peoples’ lives, starting with our own.
People keep talking about “this difficult medical decision” and what a “tough choice” Jolie, a mother of six, had to make. But to hear Jolie herself talk about it, it seems like this decision was a no-brainer. As she told the New York Times after her surgery, “I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could.” Big decision? Absolutely. Any choice? According to Jolie, not really.
She has not indicated that her decision was made for the benefit of anyone but her and her family. And that’s fine, that’s exactly how medical decisions should be made. Jolie is not raising awareness; her surgery was a secret until after it happened. She’s not starting a charity for women to undergo gene testing. She’s not even writing a book. On a scale of 1-10 showing how much Jolie’s decision impacts my life, this doesn’t rank. Even the title of her NYT op-ed was, tellingly, “My Medical Decision.” Mine. Medical. Not “For the benefit of others” or “To make a point in raising awareness or solidarity.”
Genetic testing to reveal the gene Jolie carries runs approximately $3,000. That’s hardly chump change for the average person. Beyond that, the cost of a double mastectomy can be staggering, even with insurance coverage. But how many plans cover elective surgery, and one as comprehensive as a double mastectomy? Too many women who already have breast cancer can’t get the treatment they need, nevermind complete removal of all at-risk tissue in a preemptive surgery.
By the way, where would we draw the line if this testing was available to everyone? Do you hit puberty and have a double mastectomy if this gene is revealed? What are the ethics behind preventive measures? I haven’t seen much discussion about that.
A blog I like ran a post from a young breast cancer survivor who also had praise for Jolie’s decision because in addition to having the “courage to get herself out of danger” she saw Jolie as “sacrificing something that made her attractive and feminine. Instead of staying trapped…by superficial standards of beauty, she had been brave enough to let go.” But Jolie is having extensive reconstructive surgery. She won’t be flat-chested. She won’t have the scars that so many breast cancer survivors bear. She keeps her own nipples and will have a hybrid reconstruction that gives the fullness of implants without the risk.
Jolie had a major surgery. It likely prevented her from developing a dangerous and potentially life-threatening disease down the road. Her means and resources—the money for the gene testing, surgery, and reconstruction, plus help in caring for her family during recovery and no need to be at work Monday-Friday—allowed her to make this decision. It seems like it was a good one for her, considering her risk and her ability to do something about it. Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it, too.
But normal people can’t. If we, especially young women who think we are untouchable and good technology will save everyone from bad things, spend our time lifting up a human interest story as the bellwether for cancer treatment and awareness, we’ll become a danger to ourselves. If we continue to assign to Jolie’s decision motives that she herself has never mentioned and rely on “what she is doing for young women,” we’ll become a danger to others.
Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt have said that they wouldn’t marry until all couples who wanted to marry were legally allowed to do so. This couple has chosen to stand in solidarity with those who are denied what Jolie and Pitt see as a fundamental right. But what about standing in solidarity with cancer survivors? Other women fighting breast cancer? Those who are battling a disease they couldn’t afford to detect at great personal cost and now they fight at even greater personal cost? Celebrities can make choices that average people often have made for them. Valuing their so-called solidarity is like putting beach sunshine in a jar—cute, but really?
Jolie made a big decision but it was made for the benefit of her and her family so let’s not impose upon it altruistic designs she never intended. I’m not friends with Angelina Jolie. You (probably) aren’t either. She did not do you a personal favor with her preventive surgery. Generating press is not the same thing as raising awareness. The rest of us need to remember that what Jolie did was made possible by circumstances most of us are not in. The sooner we return our focus to everyday realities affecting our real lives, the better off we and our own families will be.