Angelina Jolie’s breast cancer prevention surgery decision started with the death of her mother. Jolie didn’t want her children to lose their mother to breast cancer or ovarian cancer the way she devastatingly lost her mother to ovarian cancer. So, the actress made the brave decision to get preventive surgery to remove her breasts, ovaries, and fallopian tubes after learning that she inherited a mutated BRCA1 gene from her mother’s side of the family.
Jolie underwent this major preventive surgery at the young age of 37, which was 10 years ago, in 2013. Today, 10 years later in 2023, Jolie is thriving and enjoying being a mother.
As it turns out, Jolie’s grandmother and aunt also died of breast cancer. In an essay she wrote for Time Magazine, Jolie revealed, “I was able to have a genetic test that revealed I carried a gene, the so-called BRCA1, that predisposes me to cancer. The test came too late for the other women in my family.”
When Angeline Jolie lost her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, to ovarian cancer, she was devastated by the heartbreaking loss.
In her op-ed piece for the New York Times, Angeline Jolie explained, “My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.”
Angeline Jolie’s preventive Surgery Decision: The Real Reason Behind It
It seems clear that Angelina Jolie had her children in mind when she decided to have surgery to prevent these cancers she is genetically at risk of developing. Losing your mother too soon is heart-wrenching, and Jolie had first-hand experience of this kind of trauma, since her mother died of ovarian cancer very young, at age 56. She would never want her children to have to go through the same type of loss earlier than they should.
Of course, finding out about her defective BRCA1 gene was also a major factor in her decision to get this major surgery.
Jolie’s op-ed piece for the New York Times was entitled “My Medical Decision”, and in it, she stated, “I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.” She goes on to explain, “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.”
As Jolie explains in her article, having a gene mutation in your DNA and having the BRCA1 gene doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get cancer. Only a fraction of breast cancer cases result from an inherited gene mutation. A person with a defect in the BRCA1 gene have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.
As far as how her children factored into her decision to do this, Jolie said in her New York Times op-ed, “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.”
Years later, in an essay she wrote for Time Magazine, Jolie expanded on this. She wrote, “I made choices to improve my odds of being here to see my children grow into adults, and of meeting my grandchildren. My hope is to give as many years as I can to their lives, and to be here for them. I have lived over a decade now without a mom. She met only a few of her grandchildren and was often too sick to play with them. It’s hard now for me to consider anything in this life divinely guided when I think of how much their lives would have benefited from time with her and the protection of her love and grace. My mother fought the disease for a decade and made it into her 50s. My grandmother died in her 40s. I’m hoping my choices allow me to live a bit longer.”
This brave decision on Angelina Jolie’s part takes the concept of being a good mother to the next level, in addition to being a very health-conscious, responsible adult. Jolie took her future health into her own hands.
The Medical Details of Angelina Jolie’s Preventive Surgery
Once Angelina Jolie learned the reality of her genetic cancer risk, she took matters into her own hands, which is both incredibly responsible and incredibly brave. In her New York Times essay, she said, “I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.” She went on to explain, “My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple. Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life. Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.”
How Angelina Jolie’s Decision to Prevent Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer Has Made Her Feel Empowered
Jolie explained in her New York Times op-ed piece how empowered she feels after making this decision to surgically remove her breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes. “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.”
When it comes to why Angelina Jolie decided to share the intimate details of her story with the world, it mainly comes down to her wanting to encourage other women to take preventive measures for themselves if they’re at risk of cancer. She said, “I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options. Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”
How to Test Your BRCA Genes and Take Control of Your Health
The BRCA genes are the most important genes people can look for during genetic testing, when they’re looking for their genetic risk of developing serious hereditary cancers such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer.
An inherited gene mutation in the BRCA genes is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, as well as other cancers, such as ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer for men. Finding out if you have the BRCA gene mutations helps you make decisions such as preventive surgery decisions to reduce your cancer risk. Here is some more information about the BRCA genes.
There are different ways you can find out if you have gene mutations such as a ‘faulty’ BRCA gene. A DNA test from CircleDNA can provide you with some information about your genetic cancer risk, if you have higher risk of certain illnesses due to your DNA, and information about gene mutations you might carry.
What We Can Learn From Angelina Jolie’s Story
Angelina Jolie’s story, how she underwent major surgeries to reduce her chances of getting cancers she’s genetically at risk of, is something we can learn a lot from.
Jolie, and other women like her, have taught us that being responsible for your own health is often a lot more complex than just getting regular health check-ups. Sometimes, you have to make big decisions that could potentially save your life, and give your loved ones more time with you.
From her story, we can learn about how cancer prevention i possible, but it sometimes requires brave decisions to take control over your own health with procedures such as preventive surgery.
It sounds like despite how intrusive these surgeries are, Jolie is happy with her decision and feels empowered.
You may want to consider preventive surgery if you have a strong family history of a specific cancer such as breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or gene mutations in your DNA such as a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
- My Medical Choice by Angeline Jolie for the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/opinion/my-medical-choice.html
- Cancer Genetics Program | Stanford Health Care
- Medical Advances in Women's Health Are Important. But They're Only Part of the Picture by Angelina Jolie for Time Magazine: https://time.com/5709290/angelina-jolie-cancer-research-prevention/