The actress Angelina Jolie's announcement this week that she underwent multiple surgeries for a double mastectomy has given a very public face to the difficult decisions women face if they find out they have the BRCA-1 gene, which significantly raises a woman's risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer in her lifetime. Many women, like Jolie, undergo preventative surgeries to remove their breasts, ovaries, or both. The decision is particularly grueling for women who may want to have children before surgery.
Jolie, in a New York Times editorial, wrote about her decision and how, although complex, her surgeries have not negatively affected her family:
I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.
It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that's it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can. On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.
I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive. So to anyone who has a wife or girlfriend going through this, know that you are a very important part of the transition. Brad 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.
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.