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Our medical choices – lessons learnt from Angelina Jolie

Posted in Health, and Women's issues

Angelina-Jolie---no-captionFew things irk me more than the dissemination of useless or misleading information, especially of the medical variety. I love nothing more than to question my omniscient i-Pad on matters from cooking to disease symptoms – don’t we all? – but, sometimes, sorting the wheat from the chaff is no easy matter. 

A couple of weeks ago, a woman I barely know but is nonetheless a Facebook friend, posted on her wall a “study” that posited the entire pharmaceutical industry is keeping from us the findings of 1931 Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg, whose research was summed up as “too much acidity causes cancer”. Hence the so-called study’s helpful directions that we should stop eating acidic foods and, voila, cancer will never touch us.

As it so happens, a member of my immediate family is a  breast cancer researcher who is very familiar with Dr. Warburg and the Warburg effect, which is a lot more complicated than “acidity causes cancer”. So, no, nobody is keeping his work a secret (if you are so inclined, you can check Dr. Warburg’s research here).

Very uncharacteristically of me, (I sometimes will click a laconic “like” and never update my FB page,) I wrote a lengthy reply about the irresponsibility of posting ridiculous information, not to mention offensive to people whose cancer was caused by a genetic modification.

I am the poster child for holistic medicine – I don’t even take aspirin and I have been employing homeopathy and other natural remedies for common ailments and minor diseases for over 20 years. But my very holistic doctor shipped me off to a cardiologist the moment he heard a faint murmur in my heart and mainly works towards preventing  me from getting sick, and still insists on all those fun check-ups that seem to increase with age. When it comes to our health, it’s important to distinguish between science and quackery.

This morning, my first cup of coffee was downed while reading the frank and surprisingly personal op-ed Angelina Jolie wrote in the New York Times, about her choice to have a double mastectomy when she found out she carried the BRCA1 gene. After watching her mother battling breast cancer for 10 years and finally succumbing at age 59, getting the gene test was the smart thing to do. In Ms. Jolie’s case, her “faulty” gene carried an 87% percent risk she would develop breast cancer and 50% risk of ovarian cancer. For the sake of her family and her health, she opted to have a double mastectomy, which reduced her risk to just 5%.

It must have been a heart wrenching decision, and an intensely personal one, which she is now sharing, fully aware of the media frenzy that would ensue, for the sake of disseminating the right kind of information. The very private clinic that Ms. Jolie chose for her care would have been unlikely to leak such information but, with Ms. Jolie’s blessing, now shares very graphic details of her treatment.

Let’s be clear: gene modification, so-called BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, is pretty uncommon (you can read a more extensive post about it here). Of all the breast cancer diagnosis this year, probably less than 1% will be related to these genes. And, yes, absolutely, environmental factors do contribute to the majority of cancers, so we should do whatever is in our power to lead the healthiest life we can.

But the points that Ms. Jolie wanted to drive home are:

  1. if anyone in your immediate family died of breast or ovarian cancer at an early age (typically by age 60) or if many women in your family have been diagnosed with either disease, your doctor will most likely suggest genetic testing. It doesn’t necessarily mean you carry the modification but, once you know, you have options;
  2. the cost of genetic testing, around $3,000, not all of it covered by insurance, is still beyond the reach of low-income women;
  3. undergoing a double mastectomy does not rob you of your femininity or your identity.

Luckily, most of us will not have to deal with such drastic decisions. What lesson there is to be learnt here, from a celebrity being candid about her medical choices, is that, at a time when we are bombarded with information, we need to be more pro-active than ever  when it comes to our health. We needn’t be afraid to ask questions, seek second opinions, battle our insurance companies and help all women have access, not just to better care, but to fundamental care. Only armed with knowledge, can we then decide with our doctors and our loved ones how best to honor our bodies.

Ms. Jolie’s entire opinion piece

Image of Ms. Jolie found in the public domain

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13 Comments

  1. It’s funny: I received the Warburg spam thing on Facebook and did as you, writing a long, hard reply. It ignited a delirious exchange on holistic medicine and at the end I gave up. Truth is, it’s easy to talk and share stuff you don’t know about when you were never confronted to cancer..

    May 24, 2013
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    • I do appreciate social media, even if I can sound a bit cranky about it at times, but one of its downside is definitely the perpetuation of ridiculous myths. Glad to see I was not alone in feeling compelled to write about it

      May 24, 2013
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  2. I love reading a compassionate nod towards Jolie and her decision. So many people have criticized her or rushed to judgement as to why she is revealing this, as if helping others and/or protecting herself for her children’s sake isn’t enough of a reason. It is as though some disallow her to experience human things as we all do because she is wealthy, famous, and beautiful. Never mind the fact that, if you are very ill, none of those things can save your life. More money might give you more options but it will not save your life. Thanks for writing this in a way that I felt was fair and compassionate.

    May 17, 2013
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    • Thank you for your very thoughtful and supportive comment.You are right – often we can’t see past someone’s fame and beauty and we judge them based on a fictitious construct of our own (or the media’s) invention. I don’t know, nor care, whether Ms. Jolie is a good person, a loving mother, a home wrecker or whatever. I really do think she opened up in a sincere effort to help.

      May 18, 2013
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  3. In the span of 10 days, I have been told by a well-meaning acquaintance that cancer isn’t complicated, it’s all a matter of vitamin deficiency and why can’t all the cancer fundraisers put all the money in a single pot? …followed by reading Ms. Jolie’s article (which I found disarmingly touching in its straightforwardness and concern for others), and, adding this weekend into the time frame, I will be walking an “awareness” 5K with a friend who is a widow now thanks to brain cancer. Her husband was perfectly healthy, with a lifetime of good habits, when he was struck down by glioblastoma.
    I am a fan of good information.

    May 17, 2013
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    • In that repository of stupidity that is Facebook, the day Angelina Jolie made her announcement, I saw some “friends” disparaging her choice: “why mess with fate”, “we all have to die of something”, “why mutilating a perfectly healthy body”? and on and on. Really.
      Good for you for walking the 5K. I am working on the “de-friend” button this week-end

      May 17, 2013
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  4. Angelina has taken a decision that some might see as brave, while others see it as obvious. If you have the opportunity to reduce your risk of developing cancer from 85% to just 5%, surely most people would take it?

    To answer the first commenter’s comment, I think being so open about something that is such a taboo subject offers invaluable support to other women across the world who may be in similar circumstances. Raising awareness about health and the options available can only be a good thing. Plus, evidence suggests publicity of celebrities’ ailments can raise more awareness than any public health campaign and encourages people to get themselves checked out.

    May 15, 2013
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    • You are right. With immense celebrity also comes immense power, not always warranted. But I admire those who try to put it to good use.

      May 15, 2013
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  5. I’m not sure a double masectomy prevent from developping a cancer, it seems that it reduces the risk much but it’s not a kind of magic thing.

    I don’t unterstand why she tells about it know? Is it to help or to create a buzz?
    Why?

    May 15, 2013
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    • If you are so unlucky to have the modified gene she has, it reduces the risk dramatically, from an average of 67 percent to 5 percent. I am hoping she is doing it to remove the stigma and not to attract attention. That would be sad. Thanks for taking the time to comment

      May 15, 2013
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      • You are welcome.
        I really hope she doesn’t tell that for hel only benefit.

        May 15, 2013
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