Two years ago Angelina Jolie Pitt’s name was splashed across the headlines due to her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy to reduce her chances of breast cancer. There is a history of breast and ovarian cancer in her family, including her mother who passed away in her 50’s from ovarian cancer. Testing revealed that she carries the BRCA1 gene mutation that greatly increases her risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. She promised an update if and when she had additional surgeries to address her cancer risk. Today that update came.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Angelina revealed she has had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Just as she did when writing about her double mastectomy, she discussed how she came to her decisions and why they are the right decisions for her. But she also stressed that her choices aren’t necessarily right for everyone, and that it is important to learn about your options and reach your own decision about what is right for you.
Like Angelina, I know the pain of losing one’s mother to cancer. My mother also died in her 50s – in her case it was breast cancer. It was the lack of relevant information about my own risk as young woman whose mother has just passed that lead me to found Rethink Breast Cancer, whose mission is to empower young people who are concerned about or affected by breast cancer.
As for determining my own predisposition to cancer, although I have a family history of breast cancer (both my mother and grandmother passed away from the disease), I likely do not carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations that greatly increase breast and ovarian cancer risk. Therefore, I am on the lower end of ‘high risk’ (compared to Angelina’s reported 87% chance of breast cancer). I am constantly weighing the options to address my risk with my doctor. I undergo regular monitoring to screen for anything that might be cause for alarm. And with this awareness of my heightened risk comes a healthy dose of fear and, at times, confusion. Am I making the best decisions? Should I go to more extreme lengths to minimize my risk? Will I be okay?
As much as I might worry and wonder, I have faith that the choices I have made are the right ones for me. Surgery is not recommended for my personal situation, and at least for the time being, I feel comfortable with that decision. Or, at least, as comfortable as one can be who has an increased risk of breast cancer. It’s not always easy but it’s something I have learned to live and cope with, in the best way I know how.
Angelina concluded her piece by stating, “Knowledge is power” and these exact words were echoed by several of the women interviewed for Rethink Breast Cancer’s soon-to-be-released documentary, High Risk: A Rethink Breast Cancer Film. Knowledge can alert people to the fact that their risk of developing breast (and ovarian) cancer may be higher than average. Knowledge can empower because it provides options and allows one to be proactive in addressing that risk. And knowledge can connect, providing guidance and inspiration for those facing a similar situation.
We will be exploring the issues around being considered ‘high risk’ at a film screening and educational forum to take place in Toronto on May 19, 2015, and welcome everyone to join the #BCHighRisk conversation.
I applaud Angelina Jolie Pitt both for sharing her personal experiences, and for highlighting the importance of taking control of your own health. As she writes at the end of her piece, “You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power.”
I couldn’t agree more.