If Angelina Jolie Jumped Off a Bridge—Would You Jump, Too?

May 14th, 2013

We have all kinds of news breaking today.  The Benghazi cover up is still an ongoing story, the IRS scandal is moving from Cincinnati to Washington, and now the Associated Press and the rest of the press is reeling over the Justice Department’s sweeping records seizure.

So what was the top story this morning?

Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy headlined this morning’s news.

I must admit it was a shock to hear.  Personally, I was pretty disturbed by her going that route.  Obviously, it’s her decision and I hope it gives her peace of mind, but given her celebrity, I’m concerned about the larger message this news sends.

Angelina Jolie is a major international star.  She is fabulously wealthy and lives the most glamorous life imaginable.  Many women look up to her on different levels (e.g., mother, actress, goodwill ambassador). When it comes to the power of celebrity, few human beings can come close to Angelina Jolie.

Today’s news comes for Jolie following her own lifelong realization that she faced a potentially life threatening situation.  Her mother died of ovarian cancer at age 56.  Knowing this, Jolie took the step of having herself tested for any potential genetic factors that might cause her to face a similar end.  In doing so, she discovered she had the BRCA 1 gene which causes ovarian and breast cancers in 5% of the reported cases of those diseases.  Armed with this information, she took the dramatic step of undergoing the double mastectomy.

In our age of 24 hour news cycles and cult of personality, my fear is that the reporting of this news will send precisely the wrong message.

Undergoing a double mastectomy is a dramatic and life altering experience.  Besides the obvious physical ramifications associated with the surgery, there are the inevitable emotional problems that follow.

For the vast majority of women, annual screenings are the way to go.  If there is a family history of the disease, I’d say super vigilant screenings are in order.  If you can afford it, undergoing the very expensive genetic screening is an option but only if you’re prepared to do something with the news if you indeed discover you carry the gene that causes these diseases.

Bottom line—these are extremely personal decisions that must be thoughtfully considered.

What I fear is that we live in a society where just because some famous person does something, we all decide it’s the thing to do.  For example, even for women who discover they carry the gene, the options open to Angelina Jolie won’t be the same as what is available to the average American woman.

Jolie had available the best surgeons and plastic surgeons around.  She had the most fabulous surroundings in which to convalesce.  Most women don’t have the finances, support system, or good available care necessary to achieve the same successful outcome as Angelina Jolie.  Reading the news today, however, I’m afraid the impression out there is that this is a good option and that if Angelina can do it, so you can you.

Let’s put this story in proper perspective.  Angelina Jolie’s medical circumstances are entirely her own.  Other woman may find her case interesting, but no one should base their own medical choices off the decisions of one celebrity.

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