Angelina Jolie has just announced via the New York Times that she underwent a surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes to address her increased risk of developing gynecological cancers. The decision has attracted widespread commentary, and it’s an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about women’s health and autonomy in the United States. Jolie-Pitt is an adult woman who can make her own informed choices, yet some seem convinced that she owes them her body—and her life.
The story follows on her 2013 decision to undergo a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, a procedure she also wrote about for the Times. Medical testing revealed that she had a BRCA1 mutation, a genetic twist of fate that made her more vulnerable to breast and ovarian cancers. Her mother, grandmother, and aunt had all died of such cancers, making her acutely aware of the risk and the tragedy of being the family left behind.
“I am writing about it now,” Jolie said in 2013 after completing the series of surgeries necessary to remove and reconstruct her breasts, “because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer and then take action.”
Her decision to be frank about the details of her medical history and proactive steps sparked what some called the “Angelina effect,” as the Internet, and the world at large, started talking about breast cancer. The specifics of who should be tested for BRCA mutations and how they should handle such mutations was a particular topic of interest, particularly for those with close relatives who had died from such cancers.
Most of Twitter’s analysis revolves around deriding Jolie for making a proactive medical decision based on detailed, thoughtful consideration, discussion of risks, and consultation with her medical providers. While leaping to conclusions is an issue that came up in 2013, when the incidence of people requesting testing for BRCA mutations and surgeries increased because Angelina Jolie publicized the issue, Jolie reminded people in this week’s editorial that it was critical to only make decisio
Her clear, unequivocal comments reminded readers that the science of genetics and cancers is complex. Even with preventative surgeries, Jolie is still at risk for cancer and needs continued screening and evaluation. And for other people with BRCA mutations, the risks and benefits will be different—making their medical needs different as well. One patient might benefit from a mastectomy, while in another, the procedure might not mitigate risks. As in her 2013 column, Jolie discussed the surg