On March 24, Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which she explains why she chose to have her ovaries removed recently — and if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s incredibly informative from a health standpoint, yes. But, I also find the actress’ actions to be a beautiful example of the tough choices that mums make for the good of their children.
Because here’s the thing: Jolie’s ultimate goal was to increase her chances of living to see her six children grow up. And that goal, along with the fact that she lost her mum, grandmother, and aunt to cancer, helped inform her decision to get BRCA testing. When she tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene — which gave her an estimated 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer — being there for her children motivated her to explore her options and consult multiple doctors. And, her children were certainly a huge part of why she decided to have this most recent surgery, as well as a preventative double mastectomy two years ago.
“It is not possible to remove all risk, and the fact is I remain prone to cancer,” she wrote in her op-ed. “I will look for natural ways to strengthen my immune system. I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family. I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer.’”
I really feel for her — not just as a mum — but as someone who has been through BRCA testing and (some of) the terrifying decisions that come with it. When my now-preschooler was 9-months-old, doctors discovered a mass in my right breast. After a needle biopsy, doctors determined that it was an aggressive type of atypia (or cell abnormality) that was sometimes cancerous. I’d have to have a lumpectomy. I was 34-years-old — the same age my own mother was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is why I had been getting mammograms annually for years. When I consulted with the breast surgeon who would remove the mass, she recommended that I receive BRCA testing, based on my mom’s history, as well as the history of other cancers in our family. We discussed what a positive result would mean: medication and perhaps a mastectomy and a hysterectomy, as well as having another baby immediately (if I wanted to have another baby), instead of waiting a while.
“If I test positive, I’ll do whatever I need to do to decrease my chances of getting cancer, including having a mastectomy, ” I told her. “I want to be here to see my son grow up. That’s the bottom line.”
Of course, the M word wasn’t something I said lightly. I was 8-years-old when my mother had a mastectomy, and I still remember the tears and the scars and the staples and the surgical drains. I don’t ever want my kids to see me go through that. But, I was dead serious. I would have done (and would do) anything that I could do (yes, after getting second and third opinions and doing more research) to help keep myself healthy so that I could be there for my children. In fact, I was going down that path by getting BRCA testing — a test that nobody else in my family is willing to get (they believe it causes worry, and it’s best to just deal with things as they happen). I feel that as a mother, it’s my job to honour and protect my good health.
By the grace of God, my BRCA test was negative. I had the mass removed a few days after I received my BRCA results, followed by a mammogram and an MRI. Then, I resumed getting my annual screenings, including a special screening with my doctor when I got pregnant with my now-7-month-old daughter.
I was lucky: I didn’t have to make decisions that were as serious as the ones Jolie had to make. But I would have done what she did — if my doctors had recommended it. In fact, I think pretty much every mum out there would do whatever she could to stay in her child’s life as long as possible. So, while I imagine that Jolie wishes her family history and test results and circumstances were different, I’ll bet she doesn’t regret the preventative measures that she’s taken to help protect her good health. It sounds like she certainly didn’t make any decisions lightly. She was incredibly brave and proactive and did what she thought was best for her and her family.