In a moving piece in Monday’s The New York Times, actress and activist Angelina Jolie wrote of her second radical operation that saw her remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes, two years after electing to have a double mastectomy.
Experts are praising the Hollywood A-lister’s bravery and courage as well as encouraging other women to get tested for the BRCA1 gene mutation and take prophylactic measures to fight the deadly disease. “I think it’s fabulous that she has brought attention to this,” says Dr. Susan Klugman, director of reproductive genetics at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
Klugman, who tests for the BRCA gene mutations and counsels those who are positive, praises the 39-year-old mother’s foresight to remove her fallopian tubes and ovaries laparoscopically. “Surgery is by far the best way of preventing ovarian cancer,” she says, but notes that other, less extreme measures like doctor surveillance with blood tests and sonograms, and taking birth control pills are also effective.
Dr. David Fishman, a gynecologic oncologist and director of the Mount Sinai Ovarian Cancer Risk Assessment Program, agrees. “Jolie is heroic, and should be applauded for making a private issue public,” he says.
But it’s not just doctors who say the star is taking significant strides to banish the stigmas surrounding the discussion of breast and ovarian cancers. For writer Lizzie Stark, Angelina’s message strikes a personal note. The Boston-based writer and author, 31, has a family history of the mutated BRCA1 gene. Like Angelina, Stark’s mother and grandmother both had breast cancer, and a string of family members lost the battle with the disease early in life.
Stark had a double mastectomy in 2010 and is planning to have her ovaries removed within the next 10 years. Even though she’s resolute, the decision wasn’t easy. “Nobody wants to go into surgical menopause,” she admits. “It’s not a decision to be taken lightly. When Jolie had her mastectomy, I was upset to read about women getting unnecessary mastectomies — it’s not a haircut, it’s not a manicure. You should only do that after thoughtful discussions with your doctors and your friends.”
The search for survival led her to write her own book, Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree, a look at her family’s genetic history as well as stories of other women with breast cancer. Stark found that less than 45 percent of women with ovarian cancer survive only five years with it, and often, it’s a slow, cruel killer. “My great Aunt Elle spent two years dying of ovarian cancer,” she says, much of it in a wheelchair and in pain. “Part of my pain comes from watching the suffering and knowing it might come for you. I mapped out my life as if I would die at 30.”
Stark says that the prospects of living with the gene mutation put her between a rock and a hard place. “There’s a real feeling of being forced into making these decisions, but the alternative is much worse.”
For Klugman, Angelina’s message is a powerful one in a society that largely places values on women’s outer appearance. “She shows that someone who’s beautiful can be beautiful without ovaries, and with a double mastectomy.”